By Leah Grygleski
From the Spring 2023 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association
In January 2023, Dr. Peter Vanicek boarded a flight from Denver, CO to Chogoria, Kenya. There he met up with co-trip Leader Nate Raymond to greet the arriving team of volunteer dentists, hygienists, and general (non-medical) volunteers. The group was organized by Global Dental Relief (GDR), a Denver based charity whose mission is to provide comprehensive, first time dental care to children around the world.
Although the group was diverse in age, background, and geographic location, they were united by the opportunity to be part of the first clinic GDR hosted in this small village three and a half hours outside of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
Also, a part of the team was Colorado volunteer dentist Dr. Jim Orban, who returned after first experiencing a GDR clinic in Ladakh, India in 2019. Dr. Orban was joined by his daughter Andrea Farmer, an internet technology specialist who assisted him in the clinic, learning a new skill under her father’s guidance.
The clinic was hosted in partnership with PCEA Chogoria Hospital, a local institution directed by Dr. Yvonne Nabisma. Unlike other GDR projects that are set up in a school or community center, the Chogoria clinic is held in a stationary dental clinic. Dr. Nabisma coordinated with schools nearby to bring patients in classroom by classroom–and to everyone’s excitement, over 100 children showed up on the first clinic day to receive care.
Over the next five days, Dr. Vanicek and the group settled into their clinic roles, restoring children’s mouths to healthy smiles during the day and relaxing at the guest house in the evenings. The group quickly bonded and enjoyed spending time together in the quiet, mountainous town. A welcoming group of healthcare workers who were out and about on campus made them feel especially at home. Dr. Vanicek attributes the special bonds that volunteers form on these trips as one of the reasons people return again and again to volunteer with GDR. Indeed, most people who volunteer on a project are destined to join another in the next 3-5 years, and reunion trips are often planned years in advance.
In the clinic, the group’s teamwork collectively provided first time dental care to 543 children, with a value of $119,730 (U.S. equivalent). Care included fillings and sealants, extractions as needed, and a large emphasis on oral health education. At three separate points during a child’s visit, they were taught proper brushing techniques, how cavities are formed, and which foods promote positive oral health. Each child was sent home with a brighter smile and a toothbrush of their own.
In a country with little access to care and just one dentist for every 47,000 citizens, this much needed service is especially appreciated. GDR begins treatment with the younger population with hope that good oral health habits will spread far throughout the community, instilling awareness from an early age.
In addition to dentists and dental hygienists, GDR’s work relies on the commitment of eight-to-ten general volunteers per clinic to keep careful records of each patient’s treatment, administer fluoride, educate the children on oral health, and sterilize instruments. GDR clinic leaders train volunteers on-site to assist chairside if there are not enough registered dental assistants at a particular clinic.
GDR’s commitment is to return to the same children every two years, ensuring continuity of care. Along with dental projects, GDR operates an oral health program in Nepal and Guatemala to distribute fluoride varnish, toothbrushes and oral health education in between clinics, as well as a school lunch program in Nepal to supplement meals with extra fruit and protein. Since 2001, GDR has hosted 3,339 volunteers and treated more than 200,000 children.
After the week was over, the group embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime safari through the Masai Mara National Reserve. Dr. Vanicek described the adventure as a fitting reward for a job well done after treating hundreds of children in need.
Dr. Vanicek travels with GDR for several weeks out of the year, and is one of 16 trip leaders who make these challenging, yet rewarding projects possible. He joined GDR after a 30-year career in private practice, and now serves as GDR’s dental director and secretary on the Board of Directors. Dr. Vanicek is next headed to lead projects in Kathmandu, Nepal in the fall.
Leah Grygleski is the Outreach Manager, Country Coordinator and Trip Leader for Global Dental Relief.