It was a different kind of father-daughter road trip, when Dr Steven Landin and his daughter Melissa set out March 21 for Bradley International Airport and a long day’s journey to Honduras.
Dr Landin and Melissa were part of a 32-member dental mission team to Comayagua, Honduras, from the University of Connecticut, where Melissa is a junior in the dental program.
“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have picked Honduras for a place to go,” admitted Dr Landin, a general dentist with a practice on Main Street in Newtown. “I was a little nervous. Honduras is the Wild West, and US travel advisories tell you ‘Don’t go out alone. Don’t go out at night. Travel in groups.’ Kidnappings of Americans are on the rise, so you have to be very careful. But Melissa selected the mission and asked me to be a part of it,” he said. Realizing that dental need is great in Honduras, Dr Landin agreed to go.
“Part of my motivation for participating in the trip, aside from helping my daughter, was that I felt as a Newtowner it was time to return the favor for all the gifts the world has bestowed upon us since 12/14,” said Dr Landin.
The Landins traveled with 13 other dental students, six other dentists, and 11 assistant volunteers, eight of whom were either predental or dental assistants from UConn.
The students are newly engaged in the dental experience, Dr Landin said, and this experience allowed them to see how different dentists run their offices, over the course of the mission, as they worked under the supervision of the experienced dentists.
“It was a very valuable experience for all of them,” he said.
Each person on the mission was responsible for the cost of his or her travel and stay in Honduras, and for some, it was a real financial sacrifice, Dr Landin said.
“These kids are spending real dollars to do this,” he said.
Other than traveling to Biloxi, Miss., with his wife, Cindy, Melissa, and his other daughter, Julie, as part of a church group to repair homes, Dr Landin said he had never taken part in a mission such as the one to Honduras. In Biloxi, he helped side a home.
“I decided after that, I’d be better serving people doing what I do best,” he joked.
More Than 300 Procedures
Serving the residents of Comayagua was nothing to joke about, though. In just one week, the dental mission did more than 300 procedures, including 75 extractions, 20 root canals, and 200-plus fillings. There are dentists in the city of approximately 60,000 people, but most cannot afford dental care, he said.
“The need is so great. The poor there have no electricity or running water,” and crime is a big problem, he said. Still, he came away with the feeling that the people of Comayagua are generally happy and appreciative, “considering their situations,” said Dr Landin.
Before settling into the 9 to 5 work on March 24 at the makeshift clinic, though, the group’s adventures began with their arrival March 21 in San Pedro Sula, and a bumpy, five-hour bus trip to their first overnight destination. They arrived at the mountain town of Copan, on the border of Guatemala, to find a festival in progress, with music blaring and dancing in the streets.
It was a late night, but the next day was a day of rest and sightseeing. A visit to a bird sanctuary just outside of Copan, and a trip to view the Mayan ruins, as well as a behind-the-scenes tour of the oldest working clock in the Western Hemisphere, built by the Moors 800 to 900 years ago, made the mission a cultural as well as a professional experience, said Dr Landin. They visited hot water springs in the mountains, traversing swinging bridges and washed-out roads, and ended the day with road races through town in the three-wheeled open air taxis known as “tuc-tucs.”
It was another four-hour trip to Comayagua the next day, over roads pocked with potholes, with the dozens of bags of dental equipment and supplies strapped to the top of the bus. Dr Landin had purchased a portable multidrawer cabinet to transport the smaller dental surgery necessities, and packed it in his suitcase.
“They told us just bring a few clothes. Pack dental supplies instead,” he said.
The nine-day mission was organized by Drs Ron Albert and Randy Greenberg, both part-time professors at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, and are the real heroes of the mission, said Dr Landin. This was the fifth year for the program in Honduras, organized each year by the two dentists.
“It was very organized, and they knew what they were doing. They have used personal equipment in the past,” Dr Landin said, to supplement other equipment and supplies. Between them, Dr Albert and Dr Greenberg have gone on 21 different dental missions, often accompanied by their sons.
A third part-time UConn faculty member, Dr David Fried, was responsible for the many supplies donated, Dr Landin said.
“He knows everybody, and was able to get donations,” he said, for which all involved were quite grateful.
In Comayagua, in order to understand the patients they would be seeing, the team visited a section of town where residents live in shanties on the same property as the town dump.
“I looked in the window of one of these tin shacks, and saw a neat little shelf filled with knick-knacks,” and residents who appeared to be quite content, Dr Landin said, to his surprise. The team brought with them nonperishable items for the families; there is no refrigeration available for many residents.
A Makeshift Clinic
The clinic was set up in a large sanctuary room of the Life Christian Church (Iglesia Vida Cristiana), where hosts Rev Edgard Agosto and Wanda Agosto welcomed the program. A team of two dental students worked under the supervision of one of the seven licensed dentists, on a rotating basis throughout the week. Complicating an already complicated mission, a rescued and refurbished X-ray machine broke down on the second day, leaving the dentists to diagnose root canals through a nonmechanical, scientific process.
Temperatures were in the 90s each day, and the workspace had only windows for ventilation, and a few fans. A small, air-conditioned side room provided relief for students and faculty when the intensity of the job and heat became too much to endure. Folding chairs were provided for the dentists to sit in. Cement blocks beneath the patients’ chairs allowed the dentists to adjust the height, by stacking or removing blocks.
“It was not ideal dentistry,” Dr Landin said, but there was great joy in seeing children arrive with black holes in their smiles, and leaving with a root canal and restored tooth.
Each evening, the faculty members met with the students to discuss progress and how the working dentists could best help the students the following day.
The end of each long, hot day did not mean relief in the form of liquid refreshment. A general lack of refrigeration and ice meant that even drinks served cool — not cold — quickly turned lukewarm in the heat. Only a few places made ice cubes from the safe-to-drink, filtered water.
Having a translator was essential, and Anthony, the group’s guide throughout the trip, served the dentists in that capacity at the clinic, along with other local volunteers.
“People don’t realize how much dentists are detectives when figuring out a problem. It is difficult in a foreign language to know the nuances of taking a dental history to treat a problem,” Dr Landin said. A dentist seeks clues such as how much pressure a tooth can tolerate, if there is sensitivity to hot or cold, and what kind of pain a patient has to diagnose the problem.
Outside of the clinic, Anthony acted as translator, as well, helping them understand rules, where to go or not go, and when it was or was not safe to drink the water.
“He was almost toothless,” the dentist observed, “but speaks five languages and was very informative.”
By the time he finished his last procedure on Friday, March 28, Dr Landin admitted he had met his match. Between the heat and the constant awareness of time constraints, he was exhausted. The students, mainly in their twenties, he noted, were far more resilient.
“It was an amazing trip, and I was glad to be able to help,” said Dr Landin. “I felt very proud to be a dentist, and to see that the future of dentistry is very good. These kids are amazing,” he said. Dental students are know for being highly competitive, “But there was not backbiting on this trip. It was a great group,” he said.
His feelings of pride in being an American were bolstered, Dr Landin said, on the flight back to the United States. “I met a church work crew who had been in Honduras digging ditches and building an aquaduct in the mountains. There were at least three groups of people coming back from helping somewhere. It was a plane full of Americans, paying out of pocket, to help others,” he said. “I feel so fortunate that my family and I don’t have to deal with these kinds of consequences [that people in parts of Honduras endure],” said Dr Landin.
“This trip is indelibly imprinted on my mind. I like to say, ‘I came with one relative and left with 32.’”