February 2019 … Angela and I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Panajachel, Guatemala to engage in some service dentistry. Although an orthodontist is trained in all aspects of dental care prior to specializing, I haven’t performed fillings or removal teeth for a long time. Dr. Cameron Quayle, a local rock star pediatric dentist, encouraged me to consider going anyway and have an open mind about what clinical things I could do to support his nine month sabbatical from private practice in this beautiful town on the edge of Lake Atitlan. The idea came to mind that I could use my skills and orthodontic laboratory knowledge to make provisional dentures for the countless people that lose front teeth early in life in Panajachel. These provisional dentures are often called “flippers”. We mobilized and prepared to setup a flipper clinic in Panajachel by gathering all of the necessary supplies and equipment. The intention was to train a local Guatemalan dentist to make flippers efficiently without equipment requiring electricity and leave the supplies and equipment with him to benefit the people of the area long after our departure.
We had a few bumps along the way, as the liquid resin powder needed to fabricate the plastic of the flippers had to be procured through a dental supply entity in Guatemala City. Airline transportation limitations for flammable liquids and the sheer volume of material needed made it difficult to consider bringing those materials from the US. Dr. Robert Ferrell helped us make contact with ………… a foundation in Guatemala with direct access to dental supplies. This same contact was very helpful in helping us travel safely from Guatemala City to Panajachel three hours away. This hospitality and embracing kindness was something we soon recognized to be the norm in this country. We loved the sights and sounds of Panajachel. An open air market with abundant produce of every variety, families scarring about on daily errands and riding in Tuk Tuk taxi cabs (three wheel open vehicles), blue tortillas being offered for sale for the lunch traffic, incredible views of Lake Atitlan rimmed with three volcano peaks.
The people. Humble and hard working. Incredibly grateful. The experiences we had in the “flipper clinic” were priceless. 18 year old women who had lost front teeth due to decay or trauma early in life now experiencing the confidence to smile again with a provisional denture. An older gentlemen with a quiet tranquility, very bashful about expressing joy. This changed dramatically as he beamed showing off his new front teeth. One stoic lady in her 50s had very few teeth, barely enough to support a provisional denture. I remember beginning the fabrication of her flipper late at night after four solid days of lab work during the trip. I remember feeling a bit exhausted but digging deep to power through the laboratory steps to create it for her. It seemed like my mind and hands were on autopilot. “Flow” some people call it. Others might say spiritual guidance. Despite my tired state, the flipper turned out perfect. I was so excited to give it to her the next morning before our departure. Her daughters dressed in very modern clothing for local customs accompanied her to the clinic. They both had really healthy teeth and spoke in a very educated way to me in English. I learned that the mom had spent many years sacrificing for these lovely ladies to have opportunity. I also learned that they had never seen their mother smile confidently. Resources just weren’t available for dental implants or the expensive trip to Guatemala City for dentistry. As I carefully delivered her provisional denture making sure it was comfortable and that she could actually chew food with it (tested with some chewing gum), she paused my efforts several times looked at me directly in the eyes and said simply “Gracias”. It was very easy to say “My Pleasure”. She left the clinic. She left without a case to keep her provisional denture. I grabbed one and went outside to catch her before she was too far away because I had no way to contact her. What I witnessed outside the clinic was an unforgettable scene that will be etched in my memory forever. This woman dressed in her vibrant Guatemalan dress made from very traditional hand woven fabric showing her new smile to her daughters. All three were crying.
I have found a new appreciation for Latin culture. This experience has helped me relate to the wonderful Hispanic families in our practice. I love having four bilingual team members who help me communicate with them better. We have Spanish medical history forms, bilingual responses to FB messenger and offer our field trips in Spanish and yes I have the duolingo app on my phone so my Spanglish improves. I anticipate other flipper clinics in other areas of need in the world as I transition to the second half of my career. What an amazing opportunity this was for us. I’m very grateful.