A Dental Hygienist’s Experience with Tabasamu

When Dr. Trey Wilson approached me in May to go on a dental outreach with his team to Kenya, I apprehensively replied with an “Okay….” Little did I know that my feeble response would four months later turn into one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Tabasamu, which means “smile” in Swahili, is a dental outreach project comprised of volunteer dentists, hygienists, and others. Each year, the team gears up for a trek out to a remote town in Kenya called Kitale, which is a ten-hour bus ride from Kenya’s largest city Nairobi.

When I told my friends I was traveling to Kenya for a dental outreach, many of them looked at me quizzically and asked, “What is a hygienist going to do at a dental outreach” To be honest, I wondered the same thing. A myriad of thoughts and scenarios ran through my brain, ranging from being chased by hungry lions, or being stranded somewhere far from civilization in the harsh savannah of Africa’s wilderness. Needless to say I managed to pack every possible thing I could need in two very large and very heavy suitcases, with enough food to feed an army.

After meeting the team at Newark airport, my apprehensions regarding the trip were quickly allayed by Tabasamu veterans—their friendliness and excitement about the upcoming adventure put to rest any fears I may have had. I knew I had little to worry about, so I hunkered down for the long flight to Kenya.

Upon arrival in Kenya the first thought that crossed my mind was “Wow! We’re in Africa!” Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking that, because my thoughts were quickly echoed by two of my traveling companions Kaylyn and Erin. I was overjoyed that we were finally off the airplane, with only a brief 10-hour bus ride remaining.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape, and the native trees and grasslands that seemed to stretch on for miles and miles in every direction. It wasn’t uncommon to see baboons scattered around the side of the road. I certainly wasn’t in Manhattan anymore!

Early next morning, the outreach portion of my journey officially commenced. As a hygienist, my activities at Tabasamu can basically be simplified into two categories, Tooth Tour and Clinic.

The Tooth Tour

Dentists in Kitale are few and far between. There are only three dentists for the 300,000 people living in the area. However, even if more dentists were available the cost of dentistry is prohibitive for the majority of native Kenyans. As a result, preventive dental knowledge is generally inadequate among many Kenyans, who end up seeking dental treatment only for emergencies such as extractions and infections.

Therefore, the Tooth Tour provides a service to the young children of Kitale by bringing puppet shows and hands-on oral hygiene demonstrations directly to the local churches in the area. I certainly was not prepared for the overwhelmingly warm reception we received at each Tooth Tour stop. Even as we approached, each time we could hear the excited roar and cheers of the crowd of children gathered there. We felt like celebrities, with the children clamoring to get a closer look at us, or begging to have their pictures taken. They all sat in rapt silence as we gave our puppet show presentation about dental hygiene, and the dental dangers of eating too much sugars in one’s diet. I cannot begin to describe how amazing it was to see 1100 or so children sitting there in complete silence as we spoke—they treated us with the utmost respect, and genuinely wished to hear what we had to say! If only my patients paid so much attention!

Following the presentations we handed each child a toothbrush—perhaps only one or two kids out of entire groups of 1100 kids even owned a toothbrush. Needless to say the children were ecstatic. The tooth tours were by far the most touching and emotionally rewarding aspects of the trip.

Clinic

With all of the dentists in the team constantly busy tending to the massive lines of patients waiting outside the clinic, it was essential for a hygienist (such as myself) to try to provide a basic cleaning and exam to those patients who did not need emergent care. Granted, the conditions were sub-optimal for a great scaling or cleaning (note exhibit A beach/soccer chair below), but I realized that their exposure to dentistry for that entire year consisted of, well, me.
It was somewhat disheartening to see dietary trends affecting the dental health of these Kenyans. With an influx of sugary sodas (Coca Cola is cheaper here than bottled water!), it seems inevitable that the children and younger adults face a growing risk of dental decay. I noticed that older adults appeared to show less decay than the newer generation. Many of the children who drink sugary sodas on a daily basis have no idea the harm it can cause their teeth. This just solidifies the need for earlier dental and nutritional education. With each patient, I felt like I was doing something genuinely good, because I knew that they didn’t have immediate access to dental care. It was not only rewarding to bring each patient to better dental health, but it was also touching to see the pure gratitude every patient exhibited after their procedure. The sense of accomplishment alone here was addictive.

Oscar

Of course, no grand adventure would be complete without a love story. From the first time I laid eyes on her (yes, it’s a she—but Oscar was the first name that came to mind), I knew I was in love. Each morning I would visit Oscar, and she would suckle on my fingers (an indescribable feeling!). I managed to train it to come to me when I called out her name. On the last day, as we were packed up and ready to leave, I sobbed while Oscar moo’ed as we said our goodbyes.

As I sit here at my computer, nearly a month after my trip to Kenya, I can’t help but think about what all those children were doing… whether they were brushing, whether they had cut down on soda… and if the adult patients were doing the same. What were once feelings of trepidation are now feelings of fondness and reminiscence. Feelings of uncertainty have given way to feelings of love for the country, its people, and Oscar.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely!

Jessica Pao
Posted by Tabasamu at 11:40 AM 0 comments Links to this post
MONDAY, OCTOBER 08, 2007
Vote for Your Favorite CNN Hero

Medical Marvel
Which CNN Hero profiled onair and online is your favorite?
You’ve seen them… been inspired by them… now it’s your turn to vote for them by October 15th!

To vote for Dr. Trey Wilson and Tabasamu, go to http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2007/cnn.heroes/index.html
Posted by Tabasamu at 4:46 PM 0 comments Links to this post
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2007
Tabasamu Night : Day 7 Addendum
Last night, we celebrated one of Kitale’s annual highlights, the extravaganza known as Tabasamu Night, hosted by Team Tabasamu USA. Tabasamu Night is Tabasamu’s “thank you” to our Kenya based volunteers and supporters. The BMCC Conference Hall was decorated in blue and green balloons, crepe paper, streamers and Chinese lanterns. It was an wildly festive sight for the otherwise reserved city of Kitale. Tabasamu’s founder, Dr. Trey Wilson, opened the evening with a moving welcome and tribute to our volunteers and acknowledged Kitale as Tabasamu’s second home — “home is where the heart is.” Rev. Emmanuel Chemengich was our incredibly capable and entertaining master of ceremonies for the second year in a row. Erin Prediger, Chris Hermann, Lynn Preminger and Jessica Pao presented a shortened version of the Tooth Tour presentation, including the puppet show, that we took to schools and churches. The crowd LOVED it. And our Kenyan volunteers offered up a seemingly humorous skit, which I am still trying to figure out!

An extreme amount of love and care was put into our dinner of goat, lamb, ugali, rice, spinach and carrots — and we owe tremendous thanks to our BMCC hosts. They were THRILLED to be able to cater this event, with no stove, oven or refrigerator. We have only one more day in Kitale, and then we begin our long journey back to the States.

Amani,
Otho
Posted by Tabasamu at 8:53 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Days 6 and 7: September 27 and 28, 2007
The Internet Cafe is still not in service. Kevin Jennings has written today’s blog entry via Blackberry:

As a twelve-year old in 1975, I was transfixed by the images of the final American pull out from Vietnam, with people clawing their way on to the helicopters as they took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. That panic, that sense of desperation, terrified me.

Here in Kenya, I have tasted a bit of that desperation this week. After working in the Kapenguria clinic for three days, I was assigned Thursday to go on the “Tooth Tour.” We needed to stop by our other clinic — Mt. Elgon in Kitale — on the way, and Debbie Croll and I got out of the van to stretch our legs. Debbie was soon accosted by a Kenyan man who was frustrated by our inability to serve all who needed our services.

“Why can’t you serve all of us?”

Nonplussed, Debbie began to explain that there are a limited number of us, that we are only here for a week, but got cut off.

“Why can’t you stay longer?”

Debbie began to explain that we all have other jobs, that we are volunteering our time, and that we have to get back to our regular lives. The Kenyan cut her off once more, asking what older folks like me like to call the $64,000 Question.

“People in your country have so much. Why don’t more of you come to help us?”

Why indeed.

We began Friday at Kapenguria by explaining to folks that this would be our last day, that we could not serve everyone, and that those whose names were past a certain point on the list should go home. But they didn’t. They stayed, hopeful that somehow we could control the space-time continuum and serve more of them than is humanly possible given the time and resources we have. In the early afternoon, as it became apparent that we were indeed closing down the clinic and that all hope was about to be lost, a sizable group formed and began to press closer and closer to the doors of our treatment rooms. It felt a bit like that day in Saigon in 1975, with the privileged Americans taking off and leaving the less fortunate “natives” behind. It was the hardest moment of my week as my privileges were so nakedly apparent. For no other than reason than I was lucky enough to be born in North Carolina and not Nairobi, I get to go back to New York, knowing I have the money to call Dr. Trey whenever my tooth hurts and get him to fix it. I was on the proverbial helicopter. The Kenyans would be left behind.

“People in your country have so much. Why don’t more of you come to help us?”

Why indeed.

Kevin Jennings,
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Oppenheimer Asset Management
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Tel: (212) 667-4322
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otho.kerr@opco.com
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Posted by Tabasamu at 6:10 AM 0 comments Links to this post
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2007
Day 5: September 26, 2007
Again, no power at the Cafe, so we are sending a Blackberry entry. While a blog entry from one of the clinic teams was expected by now, it has been difficult since they do not have access to the Internet. We hope to give you a clinic update tomorrow rather than another Tooth Tour update.

As I start the writing of this entry it is 5:05 PM and we (Lynn Preminger, Chris Hermann, Gary Rabinowitz and I) are sitting in a van in the middle of a dirt road waiting for a truck to come to our aid. We have just left a local church where we sat inside a half-constructed facility — a brick church that will cost $4,500 all-in to build — and taught a group of adults and children. My team’s day of the Tooth Tour consisted of talking to one school of 1,000 children and visiting the aforementioned church of 50 people.

But we are trapped! All of the roads back to the Bishop Muge Conference Center have now become impassable due to heavy, heavy afternoon rains. (Each day we have been here has been warm and sunny, without exception, but the afternoons have ended with rain, only to be followed by clear evenings. The moon is waxing to full.)

It is now 6:00 PM. This is becoming an interesting afternoon! We have called for a truck to meet us a few miles up the road, but we still have to reach the spot where we are to meet the truck even though the roads are muddy, slick and treacherous to navigate, but the locals seem willing to help! The Kenyans seem to have an exceptional sense of supporting one another And they are keen to have any reason to stare at the foreigners, especially my white (muzungu) team mates. Whenever we have become stuck in the road, many people have come to our aid. As I write this, the local Kenyans are assisting us, running alongside our van for about 3 kms to make sure that we do not get stuck! But we do get stuck. And somehow we now have 50 Kenyans helping us. We have gotten out of the van and are now following it, as the locals push it for another 2 kms, the van sliding every which way as it is pushed. We are amazed no legs are lost! It is incredible!! I’m not certain what the source of generosity is, but we are told by a local vicar that the Kenyans have a strong cooperative social ethic. They really put themselves in harm’s way to help us as the van slips and slides.

As we walk behind the van, the sun sets, it becomes dark, but we are serenaded by joyful, local young school girls who have joined the festivities. We are actually enjoying ourselves. How did we say “thanks” to our suitors? We gave them toothbrushes, of course.

By the time we get home, it is 9:30 PM. It took four and a half hours to travel about 30 miles! What is amazing is the spirit that was experienced by the whole team!

We are ready to go to bed!

Amani,
Otho

Posted by Tabasamu at 5:35 PM 0 comments Links to this post
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2007
Day 4: September 25, 2007
Due to electrical problems in Kitale, Kenya, updates have been difficult. The Internet Cafe has not had access to the Internet for a few days. This is being sent from Otho’s Blackberry. Full updates are difficult to type on a Blackberry. We had assumed that the Cafe would have recovered access to the Internet by now. We apologize for the inconvenience. But here is a general update.

For those of you following us on this blog, please know that the clinics in Kitale and Kapenguria have been extraordinarily busy, relying on generators for electricity — of course! The two Tooth Tours have fought through hail — the hail was pea-sized — and mud and have already taught over 3,000 primary students and 1,000 secondary students. (And we have passed out as many toothbrushes, thanks to the Eavensons and Johnson & Johnson.) The primary students have screamed with laughter watching our puppet show, and the secondary students have been exceptionally attentive and inquisitive, surprised that processed foods and sugars can cause tooth decay.

Wherever we make a Tooth Tour presentation, be it a school or a church, we seem to be greeted with a song. And we have ended most of our visits by assessing people in pain. If a person is in need of an extraction, we present them with a voucher that pays for a free extraction at one of two hospitals.

After three years of serving the area, Tabasamu is becoming more of a household name. Folks want our dental services.

We have spent considerable time asking ourselves about the mission of Tabasamu, and we are beginning to think that the greater value is in the education that we provide. While the clinics are important, we seem to have a greater impact helping our Kenyan friends understand the importance of proper oral hygiene and diet. We are struck but the outstanding quality of teeth of the senior citizens versus the poor quality of the teeth of young adults and children who seem to have taken a strong liking to sugary diets. It’s our mission to change this way of thinking.

The presumed upcoming election has been the talk of the people. There seems to be great interest in the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who recently met with Pres. Bush. The people we have met seem to be interested in eliminating corruption and creating more economic for the masses, and the opposition leader promises such a change in government. He is apparently very charismatic. We witnessed a rally at Kenyatta Int’l Airport in Nairobi in support of the opposition.

Our stay at the Bishop Muge Conference Center has been filled with love and hospitality. Our food is cooked over open flames and our clothes are washed by hand and hung to dry. Carbohydrates, including rice, potatoes and ugali, are big on our menu. You can rest assured as well that hard boiled eggs will be served at breakfast and included in our bag lunches. Chai tea is a daily offering before dinner.

Th moon should be full tonight in a sky that is spectacular. After dinner, many of us just sit and stare at the open sky and stars. The country is beautiful. The sight of a monkey, melon stork or mongoose is commonplace.

We are filled with a sense of gratitude for what we have and what we are able to share with others. But we are grateful for the generosity and hospitality that we have received in return.

Amani,
Otho and Chris

Posted by Tabasamu at 11:27 AM 0 comments Links to this post
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2007
Days 2 and 3: September 23 and September 24, 2007
We’ve had a full two days in Kitale and although the stress may be high at times, the atmosphere is always light, which tends to be the case when surrounded by so many extraordinary people who have nothing but the best of intentions and the largest of hearts.
Sunday morning and the majority of the afternoon was spent at the largest, but most beautiful church service at St. Luke’s Anglican Church. What stood out the most to me was the singing, first by the Sunday School children followed by the adult choir. The Tabasamu men also took part in the choir. After the service, we met with members of the church and enjoyed sandwiches and Chai tea along with a lovingly packed lunch by Maggie, who manages the Bishop Muge Conference Center.

Following lunch, Team Tabasamu met for the first time in its entirety, including both the American and Kenyan volunteers. The remainder of the afternoon and evening was spent getting both clinics in order and making sure the Tooth Tour people were prepared. Dinner back at the BBMC followed, where we spent most of the time laughing and expressing our excitement for the upcoming week.

For Richard, Otho, and myself, Monday was spent on a Tooth Tour with a stop at a secondary school and one at a parish. The Tooth Tour is a program to educate local Kenyans about the importance of dental health and how to care for their teeth.

We spoke in front of approximately 200 students at the Kwanza Friends Secondary School, where Otho received the most laughs from his imitation of how hard he brushed his teeth as a boy.

Our second stop was at St. John’s ACK Church, where we spoke in front of a mixed audience of men, women, and children, with a special guest appearance by the town’s chief. It was interesting to observe such an intimidating man dressed in a military uniform standing there with a black crop in one hand and a bright green toothbrush, given by the team, in the other.

The best part of today was the reception we received from both places we visited. The people were so warm, welcoming, and genuinely appreciative of our presence and the knowledge we had to share. I’m looking forward to sharing our stories tonight over dinner with the rest of the team and hearing how their day was spent at the clinics. I’m left with a feeling of anticipation and excitement about the remaining days; the places yet to visit and people still to meet.
Amani,
Erin Prediger

Posted by Tabasamu at 10:45 AM 0 comments Links to this post
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2007
The Adventure Starts Tonight
At 9:25 tonight, Team Tabasamu boards Virgin Atlantic Flight #002 and wings its way from Newark Airport to London, England. The Team will arrive in London Friday morning, spend the day in London and then catch another red-eye to Nairobi, Kenya, arriving Saturday at 6:05 AM — 11:05 PM EST. After a bumpy eight hour drive that will take the Team through the extraordinary Great Rift Valley and across the Equator, the Team will arrive in Kitale, Kenya.

If the technology is working, daily updates will be posted on this blog beginning Sunday, September 23rd!! Wish us luck!
Posted by Tabasamu at 12:41 PM 1 comments Links to this post
TUESDAY, AUGUST 28, 2007
Robin Roberts Makes Us Smile

One person who gives us a big smile every morning is Robin Roberts, anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America. She’s beautiful, smart, elegant, funny, gracious and compassionate. And she has a GREAT smile!! Robin recently underwent surgery for breast cancer and is undergoing additional treatment, according to ABC. But she continues to smile. We dedicate our upcoming mission to Robin and other women who have faced the challenges of breast cancer. Like Robin, our friends Chris and Donna have recently struggled with breast cancer but they have done so with courage and dignity, keeping us always smiling along the way.
Posted by Tabasamu at 5:08 PM 0 comments Links to this post
SATURDAY, AUGUST 25, 2007
One Month to Go!
The countdown begins!

Today, Dr. Paul Leventhal hosted the first of two training sessions for eight members of Team Tabasamu.

Through the generosity of our friends and family and corporate supporters such as Henry Schein and Johnson and Johnson, we have received at least $20,000 in cash and in-kind donations.

One month to go!

Posted by Tabasamu at 1:36 PM 0 comments Links to this post
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