SMILE - A young Haitian boy shows off his teeth after being seen by a dentist from Lincoln. A team of six dentists and four dental assistants, members of the FIAT (Faith In Action Team) of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln, visited the church’s “sister parish” in Haiti in March to provide desperately needed dental care to hundreds of impoverished people. (Photo courtesy Dr. Martin Killeen)
LINCOLN (SNR) - In their first return to Haiti since a devastating earthquake rocked the island nation’s capital city Jan. 12, Faith In Action Team (FIAT) of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln sent a team of six dentists and four dental assistants to serve impoverished Haitians during a March mission trip.
Led by FIAT co-founder Don Killeen and his son, Dr. Martin Killeen, D.D.S, the team saw the first hints of the effects of the earthquake as they came in for a landing at the Port au Prince airport.
“It looked like a cracked egg,” recalled Dr. Killeen.
From the main airport, the group had to travel by taxi a short distance to a smaller airport, where small Cessna aircraft had been hired to fly them to Kobonal Mission, the “sister parish” of St. Joseph Church in Lincoln.
As they exited the airport, they were shocked by the chaos of hundreds of people, clamoring to carry their bags in exchange for a tip… or perhaps to steal clothing and supplies. It was a sure sign of Haiti’s desperation.
“You just had to circle the wagons and make sure you didn’t lose any luggage,” Dr. Killeen said.
Fortunately, the missionaries were able to stay together and keep hold of all their bags – which were no ordinary luggage. The duffels were packed with disposable gloves, antibiotics and painkillers.
These items had actually been sent to Haiti last September, along with three donated dental chairs and other dental supplies, in a shipping container paid for by banker Tom Johnson of Brainerd, Minn.
However, the day after the earthquake, Father Glenn Meaux, S.O.L.T., founder and pastor of the mission, telephoned Lincoln to ask if the shipped antibiotics, pain medications and disposable gloves could be donated to emergency medical workers. Dr. Killeen was happy to help in the midst of a crisis. He and the rest of the team arranged to bring replacement items with them.
“I was worried the day before we went down because I heard they were confiscating relief supplies at the airport,” Dr. Killeen said, “but we didn’t have any trouble.”
Upon arriving at the mission, the team realized they had their work cut out for them. Even though Kobonal Mission is situated in a remote area among “the poorest of the poor,” where there are no paved roads, no running water, and no electricity but the small solar cells Father Meaux had installed, the population has swelled from some 30,000 to as many as 40,000 people.
“We looked over the gate, and there were people as far as the eye could see… A few thousand waiting to get into the mission and get some food,” Dr. Killeen said.
The next six days were long hours of emergency dental care. With two more dentists on hand this time, the team was able to see nearly double the amount of patients – around 700 individuals, compared to the 400 or so who were helped last year.
There is so much poverty and so little access to regular dental care – even toothbrushes and toothpaste are rare commodities – once again, the dentists and dental assistants faced a shocking number of serious dental problems.
“We found life-threatening conditions,” Dr. Killeen said.
He recalled one boy in particular, about the age of 9, who had two cavities that had become so out of control, the infected teeth were draining out the side of his face.
“Had those gone on, had the infection spread, it could have killed him,” Dr. Killeen stressed. “We got those teeth taken out, and we got him antibiotics.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only child the team saw who had that level of dangerous infection. The team worked sun up to sun down, seeing as many patients as they could.
“There’s so much need, you could have a whole dental team working year-round extracting the infected teeth,” said Dr. Killeen.
When Saturday morning arrived and they were all ready for a planned half-day break, around 120 people showed up at the mission gate, having walked six or seven miles for the chance to see a dentist. The team opened the clinic to help each patient.
The trip wasn’t all work, however. Packed among the disposable gloves and medications were 14 new, deflated soccer balls for the Kobonal schoolchildren. The balls were donated by the kids of St. Joseph Elementary School in Lincoln, who had heard that their Haitian counterparts had been trying to play soccer with a wad of old socks knotted together.
After the balls were re-inflated, the dentists and dental assistants enjoyed a 15-minute impromptu soccer game with the Kobonal students.
“The kids just loved them,” Dr. Killeen reported.
The group also spent time teaching kids how to care for their own teeth, using the free toothbrushes and toothpaste that had been donated.
“We went out to the countryside on the morning of the last day and saw this kid brushing his teeth with his brand-new pink toothbrush, six miles away [from the mission],” Dr. Killeen said. “That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel good.” Now that they’ve had a few weeks to rest and recover from their strenuous trip, Dr. Killeen is thinking about the next mission trip.
“We are planning one again for next spring, Lord willing,” he said. “I think the next thing would be to bring down some medical doctors to educate the local midwives, as well as increase the number of dental patients that can be seen.”