We have just returned from our long awaited week-long dental mission to Peronia, Guatemala. (Click here to get more information on the area where we worked)
We were fortunate to stay in the beautiful historic town of Antigua and on our free day we enjoyed its adventures and beauty. The rest of the week we awoke at 7 am and took a one- hour bus ride to an area outside Guatemala City. As we entered the Peronia City limits, we were escorted by police to the clinic because of high levels of gang violence . With one of the most corrupt police forces in the world this was not necessarily reassuring. As we proceeded though the town of Peronia with our police escort, we attracted more attention than we wanted.
It is a community like many other Guatemalan communities ravaged by corruption, gangs, and poverty. As we drove though the city, littered with garbage I found myself checking the doors several times to make sure that they were locked while making nervous jokes about where I wanted to have lunch that day. Many stores had an armed security guard, not so much to prevent theft, but to prevent extortion from local gangs. The other tiendas that did not have guards had most likely given up and pay for “protection”. Most shops used jail- like bars through which they would pass processed foods and beverages in plastic containers. Most of these containers would later be discarded on the streets. The town was slightly eerie and unlike anyplace I have ever been.
We arrived at the dental clinic, filled with 30-50 people each day, awaiting dental care that they could not otherwise afford. Children, adults and the elderly made the journey from near and far. The life that these people live is amongst the most impoverished in the world. But here the effect of the added dynamic of fear from local brutal gangs like MS 13 and Mara 18 could be seen on the people’s faces.
Everyday we started in the clinic at 9 am and were sure to be finished by 3 so that there was no risk of being in the community after dark. Our team of 7 worked out of 6 dental chairs doing cleanings, extractions, and fillings. For many of the patients it was their first dental visit. Others were regulars at the dental clinic due to their common diet of processed foods and acidic/sugary beverages. This diet also contributes to a spike in diabetes and obesity among children and adults. These factors combined with a lack of education about health, and lack of medical care was the most concerning aspect of Guatemala for me. This is the unfortunate effect of corruption in the public and private sectors in Guatemala leaving the poor with no options and no way out.
On our 3rd day in the clinic a 16 year-old girl entered with teeth that were black from decay, nearly needing extractions. With the help of a translator we asked if she knew why her teeth looked like they did. She said that she had no parents, grew up on the streets, and was never able to afford a toothbrush. She was there to get her teeth repaired but it was evident by her reaction to her new beautiful smile that her worries were more complex than just her teeth. Her concerns were whether she would have a safe place to sleep and food to eat. As we searched for smiles, tears of joy and thank yous, we were more often than not met with this rather unemotional reaction. The staff and I would discuss this at length on the long bus rides back to our tourist hotel in our Mercedes bus feeling fulfilled and saddened at the same time. By the end of the week we realized that this is not about us. This is about the people and we can only hope that we provided the dental care they needed to provide comfort to enjoy food and help alleviate any pain they may have been experiencing.
It is our mission statement at the dental office that “we exist to improve quality of life”. We took this to Guatemala and big or small we helped improve quality of life for 110 Guatemalans. I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful group of women that sacrificed, worked so hard, and helped so many people. We are also so fortunate to all the donors that helped make this possible. It was truly a life changing experience for all of us. Thank you to all our supporters, including Bill Spath, Paul Kristajia, Tim Smith, Chad McWhinney