In February this year I embarked on a charity mission to Cambodia with the dental charity Dentaid. I had already travelled quite a bit in Asia and seen many wonderful places and sights, however this trip would be the most amazing experience I have had while travelling. I didn’t just meet a wonderful team and explore a beautiful country, meeting and helping hundreds of people, but I also got to explore some of my unused skills as a dental nurse. My expectations before leaving were surpassed in every way.
Is volunteering hard? While we had surprises along the way and saw some very difficult instances of poverty, overall the trip was far less tiring than I had imagined and the frequently shifting scenery and the many new people we met along the way kept my energy levels high. Some might look at a trip to a place as removed from our own with trepidation, wondering how they’ll get by without home comforts but throughout the trip we (mostly) had good food and great places to sleep.
There was one instance when I was surprised with the offer of chicken feet soup – that certainly caught me off guard – but moments like that only add to the adventure. During week one we worked in a prison in Takeo province. Over three days we treated around 300 prisoners and guards. None of the people we treated had seen a dentist in at least five years. Some had never seen one at all. We worked outside with fans and the heat was never a problem.
Here, under a dentist’s supervision, I treated my own patients and began to learn the Khmer (pronounced “Cam I”) language to communicate my name and dental commands. The aforementioned slight concerns about food and comfort are common when travelling, but I understand that working in a prison could unsettle even the most adventurous among us. In reality the prisoners were incredibly respectful and thankful for our care and at no time did I feel under any threat.
We managed to get into the swing of things quickly and our system of treating the patients was effficient enough that finished a day ahead of schedule. This gave us a day free, which we got to spend working with the charity One2oneat a children’s feeding programme in the slums of Phnom Penh. We served meals to 120 children who would otherwise have gone without any food that day. And we got to spend time with the kids, playing games and giving toys.
These things might sound small and inconsequential in the larger scheme of problems these children face now and in their futures, but we felt we had been able to bring some measure of happiness – or even just a novel distraction. It was a wonderful day for all of us. Week two meant travelling to the Jungle, on to Battambang and then to Samlout to work with the community charity The Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation. While “MJP” do some amazing work in this isolated community, there are no dental services.
Our job was to visit each school to provide a fissure sealant programme to each six-year-old class. Here we treated 120 school children and saved their first adult teeth from decay. It’s small things like this that put into perspective how sad the situation is, when such a simple issue can lead on to so much problems later in life for so many, but also made us realise that even in our brief stay there we were able to make a real difference even with small preventative measures, such as these fissure sealants. Our last service was a community outreach morning in the local health centre. Here we managed to save 30 people from pain. Word about our visit got out and 80 people arrived, unexpectedly for us. Sadly in the time we had we were unable to treat everyone who arrived so we prioritised those in in pain and Dentaid have arranged for a second team to go back and finish the work. This community had not had a dentist visit in five years.
I know what you might be thinking – this is a great opportunity if you’re a clinician, but what about people without dental training?
We had one member of our team who probably left more of a legacy than all the rest of us dental types put together. She works as a teacher and is married to one of the dentists on the trip. Suzanne wrote a song about brushing teeth in Khmer and taught it, along with oral hygiene instruction, to what must be close to one thousand Cambodians.
These people did not know sugar caused their toothache before. But now they do because they learned Suzanne’s song. It was a great example of finding a quick but effective way to spread a message. Beyond that she was an ambassador and diplomat for the team when we needed someone to take charge, even educating the UN representatives (who arrived at the prison on our second day) about our work. There is a place on the team for everyone.
Dentaid is a great charity to work with, Simon our team leader was incredibly supportive, easy going and would get his hands dirty when needed. He helped us with language and navigating the culture. He always had an interesting story about past teams which were quite helpful at reassuring us when we were jumping into new situations. I’d recommend one of his countries, if you’re looking for a deciding factor in picking a trip maybe inquire about these with head office. The Cambodian Charities we worked with were fantastic. The first week we learned a lot from One2one about working in the country. Without this knowledge we wouldn’t have had such a seamless transition to setting up our own mobile units in the Jungle.
It’s hard to pick my favourite memory from the trip. There were great parts of both weeks, but all of us agreed we would go back to the prison in a heartbeat. We knew what working with the children would be like. It’s important and hugely satisfying, but I think we were all caught out by the attitudes of the prisoners towards us. We went in with pre-conceived ideas about what to expect, and we were proved wrong. Of course, it wasn’t some blissful moment of awakening, it was one of stark reality and the immense aura of sadness among the prisoners was palpable.
While the facilities seemed clean and well maintained, the prison was dreadfully overcrowded. Giving them some much needed care and providing them entertainment for a week was the least we could do. All in all, we treated nearly 500 patients over two weeks. I would go back tomorrow again if I could. The people of Cambodia have had a dreadful recent history and while the signs of the brutal past are etched across the landscape, the people greet you with an unblemished kindness and welcome and their work ethic and resilience in such poverty is inspiring. If you need another incentive, there is something in it for you.
It is the best thing I’ve ever been part of. Personally, I have gained a confidence from my experience. Cambodia will teach you a lot. From coping with giant nasties in the jungle, to learning at least some of life outside our western bubble. I have a huge appreciation for what I have in a different way than before. Hopefully that will stay with me. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the 70 people who donated to get me there. Dundrum Dental surgery staff and patients. My friends, past colleagues and family. Everyone at Dentaid for the great support all the way from the first email to the flight home. And Dr Sarah Jane Dunne and Dr Karl Cassidy whose recommendations allowed me the opportunity in the first place.
Carrie Shaw Dental Nurse