“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”-Anais Nin
Wow. Last week was probably the most exciting week of my life. Julie Spaniel, DDS landed on Saturday night and right away VEG was bursting with energy. I haven’t laughed more in 7 days than I did last week. On the first night Julie showed me the movie collection she brought, and one was Kung Fu Panda…Uh oh, I thought, that is for little children. Julie assured me I was mistaken. Sure enough she was right. The movie was filled with phenomenal and inspirational quotes. Our favorite, which we lived by for the entire week was: “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than who you are.” This is similar to my long-standing perception of myself (accurate or not) that I am an “impossibilist.” For me, this means that I strive to do the impossible (even when others tell me “no” or that it can’t be done) and I push myself to the best of my abilities and actively enlist others to help me, as well. It turns out Julie shares a similar outlook. After our first night watching Kung Fu Panda, laughing and eating beef jerky and protein bars we hit the ground running and did the things that we had previously thought impossible.
Sunday morning, we got up early to start our day. We organized two of the five huge bags of supplies Julie had brought over, filled to the brim with tooth brushes, fluoride varnish, toothpastes, floss, toys, and surgical equipment. Kofi got to the compound early and we set off to our first location of the week. A local church. It was Sunday morning and a church in Africa… The music was loud and people were dancing, dressed up in beautiful dresses and the men in colorful button downs and suits. The children were all in a building in the middle of their Sunday school classes. Julie and I set up shop outside the Sunday school building, organized our tables with all the supplies we would need and set up all the chairs for the patients. Then we started. Our original plan was to see no more than 40 people a day. Quickly that idea vanished. Over 200 children came that first day. Julie showed me the proper way to brush, floss, and fluoride the patients and she sent me off to work while she got started on some of the more technical issues (like extracting teeth). I learned how to treat gum infection and the difference between plaque and tartar. I had thought that teeth would gross me out and I would not really be into this, but I was hooked. By the end of the day Julie and I had successfully treated every single child (and some community members) that were in line for our services.
I walked away from that first day with a new sense of purpose. This was the first time on this trip where I was able to see a physical acknowledgement of the work I was doing. Every child walked away with a better sense of oral health, smiling with gleaming teeth and completely pain free. It was the same feeling I had last time I was in Ghana as I shoveled cement to make bricks for our library. It is nice to see the product of your labor. That night as we were going to sleep, I listened as she told me stories about her experiences and how she found this work so rewarding. Inspired by her story, I’m seriously contemplating becoming a dentist.
Monday and Tuesday we spent at one of the schools in a rural community called Gbogame. Kofi and I start our program here this week. Julie, Kofi, and I set up in the shade underneath some trees in the back of the property. This is exactly what I picture as a “rural dental clinic”. The school is a junior high school and has about 170 students, but the entire community had also heard that a dentist was coming to town. The first day Julie and I had got through most of the adults in the community and about half the school. The adults kept on coming. We had to ask people to please come back the next day because we needed to focus on the children in the school. It was interesting because these children had different problems then the children back at the church in Ho. Back in Ho there were a lot of cavities and decay, while in Gbogame there was more gum infection and tartar. In Ho the children have more access to sweets (toffee is what it is called here) while the children out in the rural communities don’t, but they aren’t brushing either. By the end of the second day we had treated the entire school and almost all of the community members that came to the clinic (the remaining adults came to our clinic at VEG Friday). It was a very long two days. Julie and I both fell asleep as soon we lay down.
Wednesday and Thursday we spent in Have. Have is one my favorite places, primarily because the Headmaster Felix, is so sweet. We were able to meet and treat every student in two days without having to rush. Only a few community members came with extreme tooth pain and Julie helped them out, of course. I will be working with Have for the next few weeks with Kofi and our programs. Felix already considers us all family.
During our long car rides to the different villages Julie and I had the opportunity to talk more about being a professional service provider to underdeveloped areas. Last summer at a horse show (her daughter and I rode together) we started talking about her desire to come to Ghana with me as I was already planning my trip. When I arrived, she texted me and asked if she could come do a free clinic. I checked with my VEG partners, and within a day she was booked and ready to come over (with extra food supplies for me). It turns out we had been working on parallel projects back in Vermont. She had been working on organizing a health program for refugees in Vermont, specifically regarding dental care, while I had been starting R.O.C. Inc. It makes total sense to join forces! She had extensive experience working on international service trips where she would bring dental clinics to the developing world, including a prior trip to Ghana and she wanted to come back too. Our new goal is to work together back in the U.S. on providing dental and health care to refugees in our own community, as well as helping start this dental program here in Ghana. The idea we are working on is to create a dental clinic for each place we have established a cultural exchange R.O.C. school. Julie is a woman who gets things done! I was so glad she was here.
Friday was our final day of clinics. We set up shop at Village Exchange, in the shade in the batik making area and got started early in the morning. By noon we had finished all the women who worked there along with their children. Julie had done all the difficult extractions of the community members who had come from Dogame (they were the last few that hadn’t been worked on before) and others from around Ho.
After we had cleaned up Julie, Kofi, and I went out into town exploring the art galleries and walked around taking pictures. It was the first day we finished early and we were able to go exploring. That night as our final night Julie and I stayed up late munching on snacks and talking about our dreams and goals for future projects. Julie was my live-in mother for the week, and happens to actually be quite similar to my own mother. We got along like we had known each other for years. On Saturday we went to the market in the morning to take some pictures and explore a little bit more before the long drive back to the Accra airport. I know that it won’t be the last time we are here together. We are already planning our next trip back later in the year.
This was a week filled with learning about an entirely new area of how important dental clinics are, and I was able to do things I had never done before. I have gained many new insights into my passions and goals for the future. I saw first-hand how rewarding it is to be in a profession to provide high quality health care and experience the positive outcomes and happy clients. This week was a great interlude between the work I had been doing (laying foundations for building relationships over time) and has reenergized me to keep going for the next few weeks. My time here is more than half way done and we still have a lot to do, but I know that nothing is impossible and it is all worth it.