VCU School of Dentistry faculty and dental students at the Long Pond Clinic in Trelawny Parish, Jamaica.
For dental students, some learning experiences make a bigger difference than others. For Amy Reichert, Class of 2016 at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Dentistry, the opportunity to provide care for the underserved population in Jamaica is especially powerful. Since 1986, VCU students have been going to Trelawny Parish in Jamaica and working out of a clinic that is adjacent to a sugar cane factory. These D4 students perform cleanings, extractions, restorations, and provide education for the local community, and the Jamaicans welcomed them warmly. “People would get so excited about making sure that their children would get looked at,” she said in a recent interview with THE NEXTDDS.
Every year, VCU Jamaica Project sends three waves of D4 students and dental hygiene students for one week stints to provide diagnostic and definitive care services under the direct guidance of preceptors. According to Reichert, the students rotate in their duties in the clinic. “We tried to rotate every few hours,” she said, to avoid fatigue and to broaden the experience. The demand for their care was high. “When do you say no? You can’t see everybody. All the patients were so appreciative,” she noted. Since the local population generally worked at the sugar cane plant, “we saw a lot of anterior caries, not so much the occlusal and buccal decay we see here in Richmond.”
Amy Reichert, 2016 DDS Candidate, of VCU School of Dentistry.
Besides the high demand for their services, the students faced challenges with technology as well, Reichert said. “We had no X-rays there. It made doing restorations much more difficult. Every tooth you opened up was completely bombed out, even if they didn’t look too bad initially. We ended up pulping and pulling a lot of teeth.”
Mick Pope, DDS, and a faculty coordinator for the annual visit, emphasized that the students pay their individual airfare and they go there to work. “It’s not a trip that you win. The program runs only because the students raise the money.” Students initially express interest at an organizational meeting in January or February, then they coordinate fundraising events to pay for food, supplies and housing. Every year one student takes the initiative to be the coordinator, and for this most recent trip that student was Reichert. She kept track of how involved students were, who participated in fundraisers, and who took on leadership roles. The most involved students were invited to go. The trips take place in late October and early November, a challenging time for fourth-year students to leave since it is considered prime interviewing season.
Remarked Pope, “We take nine or ten students each wave over three weeks, so between 24 and 28 go each year. Most years we have an overabundance of students who want to go.” Not every dental school makes such an experience available to their students. “I don’t know how many students [go to Jamaica] from purely academic programs here in the U.S.” The experience has been powerful for students, Pope noted. “Feedback from students after each Project routinely includes the comment, ‘that’s the best thing that I ever did in dental school.’”
|Dental students performed tooth extractions and provided preventive care, restorative procedures, and oral hygiene education to the Trelawny clinic patients.|
Reichert agrees. She found the opportunity to work closely with their preceptor, oral surgeon Dr. Greg Zoghby, was priceless. “Working with Dr. Zoghby was amazing. The little techniques I learned from him I will take with me for the rest of my career. I learned so many small techniques not just with extractions but also the anesthesia. Usually we do a lot of infiltrations in school, but he taught us how to do specific blocks and made sure we really understood the anatomy. A lot of us don’t get much experience with that in school.”
Over the 29-year history of the Jamaica trip, Pope says the school has developed many strong relationships with Jamaicans throughout Trelawny. “The clinic is in a sugar cane factory, set up to service their workforce.” The group stores their equipment in the clinic at the end of each Project, “and hopefully it will be there waiting for us next year,” he notes. When asked what the future holds, Pope says that they never really know. “This could always be the last year – we relay on the favors and willingness of our Jamaican friends to help us do this. We have no securities other than the on-going relationships we've established.” He fully expects that the effort will continue despite the challenges. “With 1,000 people being laid off [from the factory] just recently, they’re going to want and need our services next fall more than ever.”
Reichert also enjoyed the cultural exposure. “I’m really glad we had the opportunity to experience what it was like to be there day-to-day. We had a chance to see what it was like to actually be a Jamaican. The staff that we had in our houses were amazing. I’m a vegan, so cooking for me was more of a challenge. Gordon, our cook, went above and beyond. He made sure I was taken care of every night.”
Was there one especially memorable patient? Reichert shared this case. “There was this one lady…probably in her 60s, and I was taking out the rest of her teeth. She was nothing but smiles and gave me the biggest hug and told me she loved me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that good after seeing a patient.” She hopes to continue doing outreach care after she finishes her endodontics residency.
More information on the VCU trip to Jamaica can be found at their “unofficial” website. On behalf of all at THE NEXTDDS, we thank the VCU School of Dentistry team for sharing this amazing adventure.