Imagine sharing a single toothbrush with your entire family. Or, if you’re lucky, getting to keep your own toothbrush for an entire three years. For the people of Costa Rica, this is the harsh reality that many must face every day because of their inaccessibility to proper dental care.
Over Spring Break, nine Boston College pre-dental students travelled to Costa Rica for a dental service trip, visiting remote villages to teach oral hygiene techniques, working in makeshift clinics in the city alongside local dentists, and caring for the impoverished population. Over a year of preparation and organization by head coordinators James Cassin, A&S ’16, and Jeremiah D’Anna, A&S ’17, culminated in the nine-day immersion trip.
The pair began planning the trip when they heard about VIDA, an organization founded in 2008 that coordinates health service trips to Central America. The co-founder and current director of VIDA, Sondra Elizondo, eventually travelled with the BC group around Costa Rica and described these trips as a win-win situation for all: the local dentists would be able to help their people, the patients would receive basic dental care, and the students would have the immersion experience of a lifetime.
“For us, it was very hands-on,” D’Anna said.“You’re right there helping out.” According to him, Costa Rica also provided the perfect opportunity for cultural immersion and humanitarian efforts.
Upon their arrival, the students were trained in handling dental equipment, performing various dental techniques, and communicating basic dental phrases in Spanish. The first half of their trip consisted of home visits, for which the students travelled to the northern and western borders of Costa Rica to isolated communities so that they could distribute dental supplies and teach prevention methods. The home visits also reminded the students of the dual nature of their trip.
“The hardest thing on the trip, but also the most enriching, was Spanish,” Cassin said. He explained how the language barrier between the students and the villagers allowed him to develop his Spanish skills and introduce him to a different culture. He was struck by the hospitality of the families, who offered parting gifts in gratitude for receiving care and supplies.
The students spent the second half of their trip in the city of Liberia, working alongside three Costa Rican dentists in a clinic for nine to 10 hours each day and performing cleanings, cavity fillings, and tooth extractions for approximately 125 patients. Facing unreliable electricity and water pressure, a constant shortage of dental equipment, and a high volume of patients, the students learned how to adapt to their surroundings. They also drew inspiration from the attitudes of their patients.
“It actually helped in a sense because it showed us how to be very versatile and how to react to any situation,” D’Anna said. “You never know if you’re going to have the tools you need right in front of you or know exactly what to do. The fact that the dentists could remain collected in such conditions showed us how we could do it.”
The trip ended with a recreational day at the beach enjoying the Costa Rican sun. It was a moment for the students to reflect upon their experiences during the trip and remind them of the reasons that they decided to pursue dentistry.
“The trip solidified that I wanted to be a dentist and reminded me that I do want to do this for the rest of my life,” Cassin said. “And I know that I can go back and lead my own trips.”
Cassin and D’Anna plan on leading annual dental service trips to Costa Rica in the near future, hoping to make the program a permanent opportunity for BC dental students.
Featured Image courtesy of James Cassin