By Dr. Tom Swanlund
At the end of January, myself, my wife Julie and my son Liam had the privilege of being part of a medical/ dental mission entitled “Operation Esperanza” in Ecuador. In English, this means “Operation Hope”. Every year, this mission, organized at ground level by the local Rotary Club in Cuenca, Ecuador, is formed through a local physician who finds residents in the City and in the surrounding countryside who are in need of knee and hip replacements. A Canadian team of orthopedic surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, physiotherapists, dentists, dental assistants, dental hygienists and a host of volunteers travel to Ecuador with over 40 large size duffle bags with medical and dental equipment.
I first heard of this mission through my friend and colleague in Edmonton, Dr. Dan VanBerkel who is the principal organizer for the dental portion of Operation Esperanza, and has organized this mission for the past 15 years. Dan and his team of dental and non-dental volunteers provide dental care to the less fortunate people of Ecuador.
This was our first year attending and our expectations were mixed, but we quickly realized how special this mission was and how important our work was to the Ecuadorian people. The first three days we travelled about an hour outside of Cuenca to a Grade 1-7 school in Tarqui. Daily we would see about 50 children with tooth decay. We would do simple extractions on primary teeth and do a lot of dental cleaning and teeth preservation. We also taught children how to brush their teeth and gave each child their own toothbrush and toothpaste. We spent three days at the school trying to see as many children as possible and were touched by the children’s smiles and happy spirits.
We then stayed in Cuenca on the fourth day and set up our clinic in the basement of the Del Rio University Hospital, where the orthopedic medical team was located and saw all patients who were good candidates for hip or knee replacements. It is important that when someone is getting surgery such as a knee or hip replacement that his or her dental hygiene is optimum. Any signs of infection can cause the replacement to fail. Therefore, all patients that were eligible for surgery had to be assessed by the dental team, and that day 60 patients were seen. Those who passed their dental exam and had some dental procedures realized that they would be getting their knee/or hip replaced and I cannot tell you how happy these people were. They were thanking us with tears streaming down their cheeks!
From the hospital on the 5th day we went to visit a local shelter “a Posada” in Cuenca. The majority of residents who were living in the shelter were Venezuela refugees. We saw young and elderly, mothers, fathers and children that all required some type of dental care. Some of the residents were so thankful because they had been living with dental pain for months and years. I had a 4-year-old give me a hug when I was finished removing a primary tooth that was causing her issues.
My family and I went on this trip to give our help to our friend Dan, and took so much more than what we gave. We worked long days but it felt good when we could provide dental service to prevent any further decay and teach people the basics of dental care and prevention. We met a great group of dental and non-dental volunteers, which we coined affectionately as “team dental”. We worked hard as a team, always happy to help each other with a smile, all day long. When the day was over the team continued to speak of the amazing people they met. Although there was a language barrier, the act of kindness is one thing that everyone understands.