It’s the Dentaid Moldova team’s first working day and we are off to Orhei orphanage, about an hour away from the capital Chisinau where we are staying. After a brief stop to admire the beautiful scenery and an underground church dating back 600 years, we arrive at the institution. Our first impressions are of green pleasant grounds filled with play equipment – possibly the result of another charity’s visit. The orphanage is home to 204 men and boys ranging in age from six to 40. They arrive from the age of four and stay as long as they are allowed – the alternative is the state-run psychological and neurological institutes which we are bluntly told are dreadful and “they are scared to end up there.”
Despite our western understanding of the word orphanage many of these residents do have living parents. However, the social stigma and lack of understanding about caring for disabled children in Moldova means that many are abandoned in the maternity unit or simply left with the authorities in early childhood. Of those who have families only 30 per cent ever receive a visit. They have a wide range of needs and we are greeted by two friendly young men who lead the way up the corridor walking on their knees.
The centre director gives us a warm welcome telling us of the many improvements that have been made to the orphanage in recent times. One to one rehabilitation sessions, music therapy and learning life skills are all relatively new developments in Moldovan institutions. It was only in 2010 that the Moldovan government signed up to a charter to recognize the rights of disabled people and now there is pressure from above for improvements – although not much money to make it happen. Thanks to donations of clothes, shoes and bedsheets the centre managed to save enough money to buy a “move-on” house for 6 young men who live with 3 carers. They hope to buy many more so the residents can become deinstitutionalized and enjoy more freedom.
We are here firstly to provide oral health education and secondly to assess the state of the institution’s dental facilities. The team soon gets to work visiting small groups of young men to demonstrate toothbrushing. They are keen and responsive and many want to have a go on the mouth models we have brought. Their teeth are pretty good – only well-meaning visitors give them sugar. However, many on the second floor are too severely disabled to independently brush their teeth so we talk to their carers and make sure that none are in pain. It soon becomes clear that despite the incredible efforts of the centre’s 107 wonderful staff, what the residents really want is a friendly smile and human interaction. The centre doesn’t have enough specialized wheelchairs and some of these men will spend most of their lives in one room. We all make friends, holding hands, talking and showing affection among the cramped beds. It is upsetting but encouraging to see how things are improving and visiting the craft workshop where residents make bags, jewellery and cards to sell at local markets is really inspiring. I got a warm hug when I bought the bag a resident had lovingly woven. The centre’s dental surgery had a chair dating back to the 1960s, a broken autoclave and no dentist – so it had been unused for 15 years. When residents get toothache, the centre staff take them to a dentist in town although we started conversations about a regular outreach and screening service. When I asked if the women lived in a similar (or better) facility it was hard to be told “no this one is much better – in fact this is probably one of the best in Moldova.”