It all started quite innocently. While sitting in bed one night reading, I asked my wife a simple question while she brushed her teeth. “What do you think about moving our family to a developing country and doing humanitarian work for a year?” She looked at me, turned off her Sonicare, eyed me some more, and said, “OK!” She turned her toothbrush back on and kept brushing her teeth. As simply as that, our dream started to unfold.
We had travelled to Guatemala several times previously with different organizations providing dental services. During our previous visits, we had observed several different models of care, all of them helpful to the people they served, but very different in their vision and delivery. Some organizations chose to provide oral exams and fluoride but no additional treatment. Other groups would only treat patients with the worst teeth. While another group would extract the worst two or three teeth on each patient.
We decided to develop a plan that would hopefully give us the opportunity to positively impact our patients’ lives for the long term. In addition to providing urgent dental care, our primary goal would be to educate patients how to prevent future decay. We wanted to treat our patients comprehensively, so we created a plan to utilize portable dental units and develop a mobile, fully equipped dental clinic.
For the people of rural Guatemala, two major obstacles stand in the way of their receiving quality dental services.
If individuals find work in rural Guatemala, they typically do manual labor, earning just $7–8 (US) per day. Such meager incomes must be used to provide necessities like food, housing, firewood, clothing, and clean drinking water. When your daily earnings are so sparse, dental services are considered an extravagance. However, because our proposed plan was to provide all our dental care at no charge, this affordability dilemma would be solved.
Access to care
Many towns and villages in rural Guatemala do not have a dentist. When patients need acute care, they typically have to travel to the nearest town to find a dentist. Most people do not have their own vehicles, and their only choice is to hire a driver or pay to use a network of vans and buses which travel between towns. We wanted to solve this access issue by bringing our clinic to the people.
With our mobile clinic we would be able to set up a comprehensive dental clinic anywhere we had a power outlet. Schools, orphanages, churches, or even open yards would serve as temporary clinic locations. We could provide radiographs using our laptop, a Dexis intraoral sensor and software, and a Nomad X-ray gun. Our portable dental units were equipped with high and low-speed handpieces, air/water syringes, as well as high-volume and low-volume suction.
Even in remote areas, we would be able to sterilize our instruments by utilizing Statim autoclave devices. Thus, with the exception of not having nitrous and TV screens on the ceiling for the kids to watch, we would be able to provide the same level of treatment to patients in rural Guatemala as we had done in our modern offices in the United States.
When we arrived in Guatemala, no one was providing the type of dental care we were proposing, and we were confident the people would benefit from this new model of care.
In addition to adopting our comprehensive service model, we wanted to provide our patients with the best products in the world. We partnered with Sprig to provide anterior pediatric Zirconia crowns to some of the poorest children in the world. The results are spectacular! Happy, smiling kids with beautiful Sprig smiles.
Other dental suppliers also helped us assemble our portable dental units, complete with portable dental chairs and other essential dental equipment, instruments, and materials.
Even though for a few weeks we have had large groups of people assisting us in providing care, our typical team is small. Our regular dental team consists of myself, my wife, our four children (ages 14, 11, 9, and 5,) and two Guatemalans we trained as dental assistants.
“With the exception of not having nitrous and TV screens on the ceiling, we would be able to provide the same level of treatment to patients in rural Guatemala as we had done in our modern offices in the United States.”
WHY WE DO IT
You may be asking why we choose to do this? Excellent question. Why would we choose to leave our busy practices, the amazing recreation available in our home state, and our stable lives to jump into the unknown? It’s all about the story. We teach our kids that we are the authors of our own stories. We can choose to write something common, predictable, and safe, or we can choose to write something exciting, new, and adventurous in the chapters of our lives. It is up to us what we write.
We want to lead our children by example and show them that mom and dad want more from life than working in a dental practice each week. We want to show them that the world is a big, exciting place, and each of us can change it for the better in some way.
HOW WE PREPARED
Mason Gives (a non-profit, fund-raising organization) started unassumingly with a friend setting up the legal entity and another friend donating his time to build our website— www.masongives.com. Initially, we reached out to dental companies whose #5 products we used on a daily basis. After explaining to them our purpose and goals, we gladly accepted donations of equipment and supplies offered to us by large and small dental suppliers across the country. These donations provided the crucial core of required dental equipment that has helped turn our dream into a reality.
In November, prior to our departure, we started a campaign targeting our followers on social media, hoping to raise $10,000 to help cover general anesthesia expenses for the young children we would be caring for. The response during “Mason Gives Month of Thanksgiving,” as we called it, was miraculous. By the end of the month, we had raised over $18,000 from our supporters. With individual donations ranging from $5 to $5,000, we had raised the necessary resources, allowing us to treat the young children who would be coming to our clinics.
One of our favorite things resulting from adopting a portable clinic model is being able to experience something new and different each day. Every town has a different feel to it. Each school, orphanage, or church has different resources. Some days my daughter sets up trays on a table. Other days she sets them up on the floor. Some clinics are held in classrooms; others are conducted outdoors. The local children are always curious about what we are doing. They stare through the windows and watch our every move as we X-ray and examine their friends. Many of them wear their best clothes on the day of their appointments. To them, experiencing the clinic is a big deal.
Our experience is not always easy. Nor is it always fun. Yet, we have never felt unsafe during our time in Guatemala—never. The residents in the rural towns in the Guatemalan highlands are simple people. They are also kind. We have shared moments that frightened us but never made us doubt our choice to come here. In the first few months after our arrival, our kids had to adjust to a new way of life. Some nights we heard them crying themselves to sleep because they missed their grandparents and their friends.
At one time or another, we have had to deal with a blood infection, outrageous amounts of bug bites, or UTI infections from dirty water that kept our daughter out of commission for days. Another time, I had to carry my daughter to the nearby free clinic at 1:30 a.m. because she was experiencing severe abdominal pain. Fortunately, a doctor was available at the clinic which is open 24 hours a day.
Furthermore, the roads in our area are anything but smooth or straight. Gallon-sized Ziploc bags are regularly included as part of our standard packing list whenever we leave town because we know our kids will be throwing up from motion sickness.
As hard as each of these trials has been for our family, they are a small price to pay for the privilege of experiencing the greatest thing we have ever done.
It’s extremely difficult to sum up the rewards we have received as a family. Occasionally, a mother might bring us fresh mangoes as thanks for the surgery performed on her son the day before. Other times, grateful parents will invite us into their homes to share dinner with their family. Countless parents express enormous amounts of gratitude for the care we provide for their children.
As rewarding as these expressions of thanks may be, they are not my favorite memories. The moments that mean the most to me are those spent simply sitting and doing exams at our portable clinics. These times give me an opportunity to observe my wife and 14-year old daughter taking X-rays of children’s teeth while my 11- year old daughter sits at my side charting and my boys play Matchbox cars with the children waiting their turn for treatment.
During moments like these, I realize we are doing more than just practicing dentistry. We are actively and positively involved in shaping our children’s minds, perceptions, and futures. They will never look at the world the same again. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than coming to this realization.
We are exposed to situations almost daily that are new, uncomfortable, and yet exhilarating. We come in contact with countless people who are deciding to write a better story for themselves and their families. As you are exposed to these kinds of rewarding experiences and to these kinds of appreciative people, you start to look at life differently. You quickly realize that a big, exciting world exists out there. This world constantly surrounds us, but sometimes we need to step out of the mainstream in order to alter our perspective and prepare ourselves to respond to the needs of disadvantaged people in our world in a creative, caring manner.
WRITING A BETTER STORY
When we take such action, we often face critically important questions. What kind of persons will we choose to be? Will we be honest, ethical, and compassionate? Will we follow the masses on the path of discontent and complacency, or will we choose to write something more invigorating, inspiring, and fulfilling?
You’ll notice that we’ve mentioned “our story” several times in this article. At the end of the day or at the end of our lives, “our story” is all that really matters. For a year we’ve been committed to providing dental services to some of the poorest people on the planet. Hopefully, this Guatemalan chapter is just the beginning of writing a better, more meaningful story for our family.
From the words of Donald Miller found in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, we learn this valuable lesson. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”
This article may not describe your vision. But the question is worth asking. What is your vision? Are you pursuing it? We fully understand that living in a small town in the developing world providing dental services for some of the poorest people on the planet may not be your thing. That’s cool. But it is our thing. Now the question is, what is your thing? Have you thought about that? Have you defined it? Are you pursuing it? Are you putting it off because you’re too busy, your kids are too young, or you’re just not ready?
We were scared to take the leap of faith and follow our hearts down a tiny unknown path. Nearly a year before we left for Guatemala, I convinced Mandee, my wife, we needed to postpone our departure date a few months while I prepared a few things at our practices. She agreed to move back our departure date, but then she said something that will stay with me forever. “If we postpone this opportunity and it never happens, I will be broken-hearted.” That’s certainly not the story we wanted to write. Thankfully, we decided instead to go for it!