April Johnson Guatemala clinic group.jpg


Dentistry Among Devastation

Posted by April Johnson

Growing up in Orchard Park Presbyterian Church and in the family that I did, I was raised to help others when I could and to do so in a selfless manner. Service soon became a priority for me, because it is in those experiences that I feel happiest and closest to God. It is the foundation of my relationship with Him. It was after all the youth group Caravan trips and the mission trip to Haiti that I went on with Becky and Al Atz where I realized that service was something I wanted to be a part of throughout the rest of my life and in my future career.  I took a while to decide that dentistry was the field that I wanted to pursue, but it made sense for me because within that field I could incorporate both my talent for science and my passion for people.
It’s difficult going to college and suddenly not having obvious opportunities to get into service like there is at church. I have found ways to do so at my school, Miami University, but when I was presented with an opportunity to go to Guatemala on a mission trip where I would be able to do something that pertained to my future career, I couldn’t say no. The program I went through, Global Dental Relief, is an international organization where dentists, hygienists, and anyone who feels called travels to areas around the globe to run week-long free dental clinics. Each location has several clinics happening throughout the year that are co-organized with the local groups and government. Many of the patients come back, showing what an exceptional job this program does at providing lasting care. Within the 5 days my team worked in the clinic, we served 837 patients and provided over $223,000 US dollars worth of dental care. Based on limitations of the environment and the timing our focus was on relieving immediate pain and preventing further damage. 
Guatemala is a Spanish speaking country, and with that comes a bit of a language barrier. Because of this we had local people come donate their time to help translate for our team. The translators were all there volunteering; meaning they took 7 hours out of each day during that week to just go stand and talk. It was amazing to see these people who chose to help their community with nothing in return. Our patients were as young as 4 years old all the way up to older adults, but the majority of the patients we saw were school children that came in from the local schools with their classes. Having people there, who could communicate better, especially with the young ones who had never had dental care done before, helped tremendously.
My job was typically to assist the dentists who were working on the patients. This included charting and writing down diagnostics and procedures for our records or performing suctioning and spraying air and water during a tooth extraction. Despite having a language barrier with the patients, I found other ways to communicate. I held their hands as a way of showing them they were not alone and that everything would be okay, and during wait times we would goof around and squirt water and air. Basically, my goal was to do anything to make them feel comfortable and unafraid of the situation.
But, when I left Guatemala, it wasn’t until I already landed in Miami that I had heard that Volcano Fuego had erupted. As it turns out my flight was one of the last out before they shut down the entire airport. To give you some context, Guatemala City, where I flew out of is about 25 miles from the volcano and was still covered in ash moments after the eruption. The town I was staying in for the clinic was only 10 miles from the explosion, so you can imagine the kind of distress that community went through. Many of the people I met along the way came from smaller villages around the base of Fuego where even more devastation occurred. There are people whom I met there that I don’t even know are still alive. Now, over a month after the eruption, there are confirmed 109 people dead and hundreds still missing, most likely increasing the death toll.
It’s a funny feeling; my friends and I in the days leading up had watched Fuego smoke and even watched the glow of the lava at night. But nobody else seemed concerned so we couldn’t have imagined what would happen the next day. Suddenly the country I had fallen in love with and a community of people whom I went to help provide care to was suddenly in need of desperate help and there was nothing I could do. There are people whom I met there that I have no idea whether or not they or their families are still alive. Not being able to help them was a feeling I struggled with for a while after returning, but then I realized that it wasn’t where I was meant to be anymore. God kept me safe and able to return when I did so that I could immediately go to Camp Pyoca, where I have been working all summer. I can say that from the experiences I’ve had there recently, that I am still doing God’s work and helping where I can.
I went to Guatemala to help and to learn from the people there but now they are in need of more help than ever. I encourage everyone, if you feel called, to look into
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, who is currently sponsoring efforts of relief in the area. If you have any questions about my experience or the program I went through you can reach out to me at my email: johns611@miamioh.edu or check out the Global Dental Relief website.



Topics: Tier1

April Johnson

Written by April Johnson

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