Meeting the Dental Needs of Bolivia

Taking time to meet the dental needs of the remote jungle region of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia.

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Dr. Jeffrey Fisher spends time with Rodrigo and Samir, two brothers who received a compete oral diagnosis and rehabilitation (including Zirconia crowns) by our dental team in a local hospitalʼs operating room.

With over 7 billion people on this planet, how can I make a difference in this world? Many of us contemplate this question every day as we serve people in our own little corner of this beautiful globe we call home. As dentists, we make our living helping others. Whether through doing a prophy, a pulp and crown, or even an extraction and space maintainer, our professional skills do more than just provide for our families. They make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of children and parents in our communities. 

But occasionally, I feel a call to do more. We in North America take so many things for granted. It almost seems like there is a pediatric dental office on every corner. While there are places with limited access to dental care here at home, many countries of our world incredibly lack even the most basic dental supplies, things like toothbrushes or toothpaste. 

Over the last few years, I have enjoyed the awesome privilege of traveling with my wife and two children to different countries around the world to serve others. 

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 OUR SURGICAL TEAM: The surgical team consisted of Gabriella Garcia (dentist), Patricia Rivas (pediatric dentist), Samuel Li (medical anesthesiologist), Jeffrey Fisher (dental anesthesiologist), Tiffany Fisher (student assistant), along with Samir and Rodrigo (dental patients). 

These short trips have made a profound impact on my family. While we go to make a difference in the lives of others, we often experience an even more powerful change in our own lives—because it is truly through service that we reach our highest calling. 

This year our destination was a rural community in a remote jungle region of Bolivia—the town of Rurrenabaque. A short plane ride from the capital of La Paz, this community tucked away in the jungle is home to a local orphanage called Familia Feliz. Here our group of over 40 (made up of high school students, medical doctors, dentists, and other volunteers) would spend the next 14 days. Housing 60 plus children—many surviving horrible stories of physical and emotional abuse—Familia Feliz is a safe haven for children who are starving for love and are longing for a place where they can feel safe and truly belong. 

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Dr. Garcia (standing) adjusts a well-worn Tofflemire matrix. The use of bleach for sterilization often creates rust on the instruments, making them hard to twist.

During the trip, our dental volunteers served over 900 people from surrounding villages, including soldiers from two local bases, as well as the many children of Familia Feliz. Although we made a dent in meeting many of the local people’s dental needs, so much work remains to be done. While our trip to Bolivia is over, our mission has just begun. And it is that mission that inspires us to keep looking for the next place to serve. —Jeffrey P. Fisher, DDS 

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Itʼs a great feeling when you can save teeth instead of just extracting them. Dr. Fisher shows a little girl what her new tooth will look like just before Dr. Rivas cements it into place. This was the first pediatric Zirconia crown to be placed in the country of Bolivia. 
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Four young soldiers from the local army base wait on an old wooden bench for their turn to receive dental treatment. For many, this was the first time in their lives that they had seen a dentist. 
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Dr. Patricia Rivas administers local anesthesia to a young girl preparing for an extraction. In an area of the world where dental services are not readily available, it’s sad to see how simple occlusal cavities turn into multiple extractions on so many of these beautiful young people.  

I am currently a dentist at Sanatorio Adventista del Plata in Entre Rios, Argentina. Ever since I was a young girl in middle school, I have had a desire to serve others. I was assisted in realizing my dream 17 years ago when a group of American doctors donated a portable dental unit. Since then I have been serving six months a year as a volunteer dentist in various countries of South America, the last three years in Bolivia. 

I have to admit that this opportunity for service is what keeps me motivated when I am in my own office. By giving the best of myself, the profit I make at home helps to cover the expenses incurred during my volunteer trips. 

As I write this article, I am in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, where for two weeks we are providing free dental services to orphanage kids, members of the community, and soldiers on a nearby army base. Our services include doing procedures such as restorations, hygiene treatments, extractions, and making dentures. 

The needs here are great, and few dentists are willing to do this type of work. My goal is to devote myself full time to service in this area. I have two big dreams—one is to have a mobile dental unit complete with a dental laboratory. That way we can provide service in many different places, spending one or two weeks in each area and providing more complete dental care that would include offering free dentures to people with the greatest need. 

My second dream is to place implants for patients at cost or completely free to the ones that can’t afford to pay. To do this, I need to have the sponsorship of a dental implant company or a dentist who would donate a certain number of implants monthly or supply us with the implants at cost. I hope to offer implants to every person in need and not just to society’s privileged elite. 

I have been blessed to have the support of a colleague, a dental technician, who like me is a volunteer, willing to make dentures at no cost. Seeing the transformation in people’s lives when they receive dentures brings us the greatest satisfaction of anything we do here in Bolivia. Most people can’t afford to pay for dentures, but when we provide them free, what a joy to see them being able to chew correctly again. Their self-esteem increases, their faces look younger, and best of all, they start smiling again without any shame. 

My colleague and I are both willing to dedicate our talents entirely to this mission without a salary. Material resources are not the problem when God provides. The greater difficulty is finding the human resources to meet the challenging needs, and we are committed to serving in Bolivia. Sometimes we may think that it is only the patients who receive benefit from this type of service, but we are often the ones most blessed. — Gabriella Garcia, DDS 

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Monica, a volunteer from Columbia with basic medical training, translates for one of the many oral health care classes pit on for the local indigenous communities surrounding Familia Feliz. For some, this was the first time to ever use a tooth brush.

During my 13 years doing dentistry in the U.S., I have never experienced such joy and peace in my heart as I felt serving the orphans and needy communities in Bolivia. 

Maybe some of you who are reading this article were one of the generous dentists who donated or loaned instruments, materials, or equipment for our endeavor. You have no idea what a great blessing you brought to the people of Rurrenabaque and the orphans of Familia Feliz. 

Our international team included dental professionals from Bolivia, Argentina, the United States, Colombia, and Mexico. All came with the same goal—to serve. One of our objectives was to provide every single orphan with a dental screening, a prophylaxis, and a fluoride varnish. We were delighted that our hygienist and her team were booked to the max. Sometimes we simply alleviated someone’s pain, and that was as important as it was to place a composite that allowed a person to smile. 

Here in the U.S., I’m used to the formality of having parents or patients fill out a consent form before doing any work. In Bolivia, on the other hand, we faced the reality that some of the kids walked for hours just to have an extraction done; and sometimes the oldest relative with the patient was another kid just 9 years old. 

During our stay in Bolivia, we worked under two extremes of practice. Some days we worked in a modern mobile dental unit or operated in the OR of the local hospital using general anesthesia. Other days, we worked while patients lay down in primitive outdoor conditions and with rain pelting our backs. At such times, I couldn’t help reflecting on how, in the U.S., the front office and the back office are always complaining about the difficulty of controlling the AC thermostat. 

I am a different person after returning from our Bolivia trip, not only because I now realize the huge resource differential between the U.S. and Bolivia, but also because I have come to appreciate that sometimes we are so busy with our daily lives that we don’t take time to look at a beautiful night sky, full of stars. We are so busy that we don’t stop to reflect on what really matters in life. When you aren’t distracted by material things, you start appreciating people and caring about issues that are truly important. —Patricia Rivas, DDS