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First Person: UCSF Dental Students in Haiti

April 13, 2011

HaitiHaiti: From The Pearl of the Antilles to The Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere
by Shannon Hayashibara, Class of 2012

This spring break, seven UCSF Dentistry students and graduates set off on a Caribbean getaway. What once was France's richest colony, lush with fruits and towering mahogany trees, Haiti today is one of the world's poorest nations, hindered by dictatorships, depleted natural resources, and, as you can imagine, lack of adequate medical or dental care. There are many humanitarian teams that travel to Haiti, especially after the 7.0 earthquake January, 2010 that devastated an already-beleaguered country.

At the airport in Miami were the 30 members of our team, a medical/dental/nursing group, among several others who were identifiable by their matching t-shirts. The Christian Medical and Dental Association organizes trips to various areas of the world that don’t have the access to care that they need. Each year the group travels to a different area of Haiti; this year, to the coastal city of Cap Haiten, to see patients, dispense prescriptions, give medical advice, facilitate surgeries, and more. The medical team consisted of Radiologists, an Obstetrics and Gynecologist, an Emergency Medicine doctor, several nurses and many other skilled health care personnel.

The dental team was led by Dr. Mason Lee, DDS, MD, who completed an OMFS residency at UCSF, and included Dr. Johannes Knueppel, DDS, Stephanie Chan Knueppel (D4), Martin Messah (D3), Daniel Han (D3), Stacey Moon (D1), and Shannon Hayashibara (D3). Over the course of five days, inside a school classroom with no electricity, the team treated approximately 190 patients, and extracted 220 teeth. The patients were given toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss, which were generously donated by sponsors. The children received OHI, fluoride varnish, and each toothbrush pack had a personalized picture or message that UCSF students had decorated.

Following an exhausting day of extracting broken down, long-rooted teeth from thick, dense bone, we crafted balloon animals and extravagant hats, handed out stickers, and played ball with the children. It was a wonderful way to end the day. I think I speak for all of us on the dental team in saying that Dr. Lee was an outstanding leader, a master at multi-tasking, an excellent educator, and someone who cares deeply for the student volunteers and the Haitian people.

I was facetious in labeling our trip as a "getaway," but I wouldn’t have spent my spring break any other way. I think every UCSF student has given back to their community in some way, and many have journeyed to remote areas of the world on global outreach trips. Given that this was my first trip, I initially was apprehensive about safety, but those fears were soon allayed and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to Haiti, treat patients, and meet wonderful people.

When I told people that I was headed to Haiti, they said, “This experience will change you.” So while I was expecting to be ‘changed’, I didn’t know how or in which ways - and I believe the transformation of perspective is different for everyone. It opened my eyes to what extreme poverty means, and strengthened my arm muscles (the battle between me and the bone to get the tooth out), but I also left with a feeling of energy. I can’t explain it, but I hope to have the chance to go to Haiti again next year.

"While Haiti has recently celebrated more than 200 years of independence from French colonial rule, the citizens of the island remain vulnerable to poverty, poor health, and political chaos." - Eliot Engel

Photographs: Courtesy Shannon Hayashibara