Going to the Dentist – On a Caribbean Island

“8am I‘ll come to pick you up“, I tell the kids one last time, standing in front of the wooden house they live in, in front of the beach of Carenero Island. It is after their Ukulele class we have every Sunday. I managed to get the grandmother’s permission to take the kids to the free dental clinic that would be organized the next day, Monday December 11, 2023 at Lost Boy Blues Bar aka “Casa Chocolate“ by the organization Floating Doctors. We agreed that I would bring them there and their dad would pick them up by boat. At this point, I don‘t realize the dimension of the event ahead of us.

The next day, we leave their house around 8:20 am. Three girls come along; Kelsy, Yulisa and Joysy. Kenroy, the smallest one in the house, is still asleep. We walk along the beach and use a path through the center of the island in order to reach Lost Boy Blues Bar on the other side. It is about 8:40am. According to the flyers, they start attending patients at 9am. There is already a line of people along the aisle that connects the island with the main building over the water. I leave the girls in line and head to some fellow translators for the day. I signed up to help communicate between English-speaking dentists and the Spanish-speaking patients.

It is not until I enter the venue that I realize the magnitude of the event. The room is packed with people in scrubs, tables and counters ready with equipment. One of the faculty dentists is giving a briefing before the clinic starts.  This event is much bigger than I expected. I notice the names of other countries and year numbers on some dental scrubs:”Philippines 2014”. Anthony Santiago Soto who is sitting at the front desk tells me more about it: Most of the program participants are aspiring dentists from USC- University of South California. They are here with more experienced dentists, that coach and support them with the work. Together they form DHOP – Dental Humanitarian Outreach Program. DHOP is a student-run organization that provides dental care in different countries. In the last 13 years, they organized clinics in Honduras, Colombia, Kenya, Jamaica, Belize, Cambodia, Nicaragua, the Philippines and more. Anthony is a Clinic Coordinator, and lives in LA, but has roots from Oaxaca, Mexico. This is his second trip with DHOP after going to the Bahamas last year.

Floating doctors dental clinic 3

I am surprised to find out that this is DHOP’s second visit to Bocas del Toro. The first clinic took place in 2018 in the gym in Bocas Town. This year, out of all places in the world, they not only decided to come back to Bocas del Toro, Panama, they ended up on Carenero island, on the island where some of my dear music students get to have their first dental appointment in their lives.

So why did DHOP come back a second time? Nineli Zadourian is the director of DHOP since 2019. The first clinic in Bocas was set up together with Floating Doctors. The need was so high and the people very appreciative. During the pandemic it was hard to set up clinics because of the travel restrictions in their home country and restrictions of the health departments in the countries they wanted to travel to. The missing medical treatments were also observed in Bocas del Toro. “This year, Floating Doctors contacted us again saying the need was still high as not many dentists have been able to come in the past couple of years. It was like two buddies meeting again saying: yes,let‘s do it!”

What do they do at the clinic? All of the dentists have their station assigned in advance with the translators from the Bocas community stepping up to help when called. The patients receive all kinds of treatment: fillings, cleaning, oral hygiene instructions, x-rays (they use a pistol-looking portable x-ray called “NOMAD”, (see photo below), root treatment and yes, several teeth are being extracted. I face vocabulary that is not usually part of my daily island life. “Bicho ” – bug“ in English is a term we used to explain to one kid what it is that causes the cavities in his teeth. He had four of them. Oh and what an immense patience and kindness the dentists show while treating the smallest ones. The discomfort of the new situation and the sound of the machines still scare some kids. One out of four cavities is treated for this little guy today. The tears are gone when he gets accompanied to the big box of toys DHOP brought along.

Going to a dentist on a Caribbean Island

The air-conditioned room of Casa Chocolate is full of movement all day. For some reason I am reminded of a busy restaurant. I worked as a waitress for a couple of months in which I experienced tense situations between the waiters and the chefs. During the clinic I feel no such tension. The ambience is busy but peaceful, everyone supports one another. I feel appreciated for helping out with translations and sense that every single person is doing their best to provide a professional job and make their patience feel as comfortable as possible. I share my observation with Dr.Sunny. She explains that the graduates are from different academic years within the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, and are selected in an application process.The majority is at the top of their class” Then Dr.Sunny makes very clear that not only academic skill are what they are looking for: We can teach them the hand skill but it is important that they give us the sense that they are willing to do anything.” Seventeen of them are in their 4th year of dentist school.

Some of them have been to other DHOP clinics around the world but not only this, Dr Sunny explains: “They work with me in a program where we do mobile dentistry all year long in California, so these 17 seniors already do this type of work; This is who they are.” For some of them it is their first time at DHOP, we are really privileged. They know that, but here they can see”

“So how was your first experience at the dentist?“, I asked Yaeli, one of the younger patients after her
visit. “They treated me very well, they were cheerful and calm. Sometimes I felt pain but they cheered
me up in order for me to continue.“
“And what would you recommend to other kids concerning their dental care?” I asked.
“First, use dental floss and then brush your teeth. And well, you must take care of your teeth.“

The Dental Clinic for adults and kids took place from December 11 until December 14 2023 at the
Lost Boys Blues Bar aka „Casa Chocolate“ on Carenero island, Bocas del Toro, Panama. In these
four days over 170 patients were seen and more than 400 treatments were done, according to
Samantha Horn, Executive Director of the Floating Doctors.

Thank you to:

● Floating Doctors for arranging and executing the clinic
● DHOP USC for making this clinic possible.
● Every grandmother, aunt, father, boat driver, cousin who brought along themselves and other
family members to receive dental attention.
● Karen and Eric from PirateArts Experience Resort & Lost Boys Blue Bar for their generous donation of
the venue space
Cosmic Crab for accommodating the students and feeding them meals throughout these past
● Financial contributions from Dolphin Blue Paradise and the Bocas Del Toro Rotary Club
● Food contributions from Coquitos Beach, Raw Fusion, Restaurant Chitre, Buena Vista,
Bibi‘s on the Beach, Rennys Pizza.

Article by Marianna Ortiz

Marianna Ortiz

About the author: My name is Marianna Ortiz, I‘m a Swiss-Mexican girl who loves the jungle and the sea. I enjoy singing “La Bamba“ on the ukulele with my students from BAMA – Bocas Arts and Music Academy, where we bring musical education to kids on Isla Colon, Carenero and Bastimentos. I share my passion for the tropical flora and fauna through nature tours (Jungle Walks Bocas del Toro) and illustrations like in my new year calendar 2024 presenting leaves of edible plants of the area (Have you ver heard of the Dasheen? A plant with heart-shaped leaves and edible roots, cooked in soups). For four years I‘ve been doing my best to explore every corner of the archipelago of Bocas del Toro by land, above and under the sea.

You can see me riding on a bicycle through Bocas Town, surfing or snorkeling at Black Rock, balancing along wooden planks in the mangroves, listening to the cracks of a Manakin bird in the bushes of Solarte, inhaling the scent of the Ylang-Ylang flower at sunset around Big Creek or having a Passion Fruit lemonade somewhere with ocean view and a breeze.

The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

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