After traveling for nearly 30 hours, my plane landed in the small airport in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. In the days leading up to my trip, I tried to imagine what the experience would be like. Nothing could have prepared me for the eye-opening experience I would have.
My journey to Cambodia was not a typical vacation. It was the first time I traveled in order to put to use the skills and knowledge I acquired during my 3½ years in dental school. I was on a mission to provide dental care to people halfway around the world from me. I could not wait to get to Angkor Hospital for Children and start.
Angkor Hospital for Children is a nonprofit hospital in Siem Reap. All the patients receive free care, and families travel for several hours with their children with the hope to be seen that day. When I made my way to the dental clinic toward the back of the campus, I passed through several waiting areas. I would wave to children and their parents, and no matter how sick they may have been, they usually returned a smile and waved back.
There can be up to 60 children seen at the clinic per day. Patients are typically seen by dentists or dental nurses. The clinic also has volunteer students and dentists from all over the world. The week of Dec. 5, 2016, I was among those lucky volunteers, serving for what will surely be the most memorable three days of my life.
My first patient was a young girl who was in a lot of pain. Upon examination, I found that the majority of the teeth were decayed and broken. I’ve never seen someone this young with such serious dental issues. Luckily for this girl, most of them still were baby teeth. If she started brushing, she would have a great chance of keeping her permanent ones. She required an extraction, and she was a model patient. Knowing it might be a long time until this little one was seen again, her other teeth were “painted” with silver diamine fluoride, which helps slow down the progression of cavities.
But many kids were less fortunate than her, and they had to have permanent teeth removed. Patient after patient, I saw more of the same — little kids with decayed teeth, abscesses and pain. On that first day I saw 10 patients, only one of whom didn’t have multiple cavities. One of the dentists on my first day explained that many of these kids hadn’t seen a toothbrush before.
What really humbled me was the children’s behavior after each procedure. Not all my patient experiences went smoothly. Even with my limited Khmer (the official language of Cambodia), here was a huge language barrier between the patients and me. In addition, some kids were simply scared of me because I was possibly their first encounter with a foreigner. But the dentists and dental nurses at the hospital helped me gain the trust of these kids.
Most of the procedures I provided were extractions, which are scary for people of all ages. No matter how much they cried or how much discomfort they were in, every child would put their hands together, give a slight head bow and say thank you. These kids knew their parents had to miss an entire day of work to bring them to the hospital. They were truly grateful, despite any tears they may have shed while in my dental chair.
The people of Cambodia do not sweat the small stuff. It’s too hot for all that. They are a people who lived in a war zone for a long time and have only recently started to rebuild their beautiful country. Cambodia still has many health disparities, which is why oral hygiene may have been placed on the back burner. My hope is that I was able to help start a truly long-lasting relationship between the University of New England College of Dental Medicine and the Angkor Hospital for Children that will help chip away at this disparity.
It’s strange to say that I grew significantly during the eight days I spent in Cambodia, but it’s true. I learned some of a language I never thought I’d speak. The cuisine I tried was new and absolutely amazing. It was so much more than a 12-hour time difference. It was truly a different world — a world that places value on living life and doesn’t take any good for granted.
Mitchell Mamorsky is a fourth-year dental student at the University of New England in Portland.