My daughter Freya and I had an emotional and rewarding 2 week experience, working in very different circumstances from British dental surgeries!
For our first outreach we made our way to Prey Veng Province, 3 hours to the east of Phnom Penh, working with the charity One-2-One.
Our task for 5 days was to screen, relieve pain, do prevention and give oral hygiene and diet advice at Theay Junior High School which has 650 pupils.
The charity had been invited to attend by the three star general of the Cambodian People’s Party who had offered free dental treatment to the community just ahead of the elections. On our first day we didn’t get our heads above the parapet, we were swamped with adult patients seeking treatment. Everyone had need, so we set our oral health team going through the school classes, identifying children in pain, and starting the education programme, whilst the dental staff treated patients in the makeshift clinic in a classroom.
The second day, we arrived at 7.30am to see a snaking queue of police, teachers and adults with young children waiting.
One of our support workers had identified a girl in need of a make over. She was psychologically nervous and always held her hand to her mouth due to her insecurity and pain. Tara, one of our Dundee dental students set to work, aided by Simon our team leader, and a miraculous transformation occurred, she ended up being an ambassador, encouraging the children in pain to attend our clinic, now always grinning and bringing us Cambodian sweet delicacies to try.
In the final 3 days, we saw the majority of the school for oral health education, treatment and toothbrushing. It was sad to see the enormous amount of dental decay with the majority having more than 9 teeth affected, many just abscessed roots in the jaw remaining and all under the age of 16. It was obvious that we couldn’t change everything here and much damage had already been done. As it was, we had brought a service to a poorly paid farming community, miles from a dentist and for free.
Saturday morning, we rose early to go to the charity HQ, where we helped cook a curry, wash apples and collect milk for feeding over 100 children in the school run by the charity, in one of the 3 slum areas.
Although these children had little apart from the clothes on their back, they were rich in smiles, happiness and affection for each other.
It was heartening to see one 4 year old tip a green liquid concoction down the drain in favour of milk.
From the slums, we had an afternoon visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields that are tranquil and serene, despite the atrocities that occurred both there and the other 300 or so killing fields across Cambodia.
Next day a whistle stop tuk tuk tour of the city and lunch before we headed to our next destination, Kampong Cham, 3 hours north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River.
Dr Nhep (a gentle petite lady in her 60’s) provides outreach with her Cambodian dental students.
Facilities here were limited, chairs constructed of folding chair, fixing a wooden cross with a sponge as a headrest on the back of the chair and draping with laundered green drapes. We saw workers and community members, relieving pain and giving oral hygiene instruction, they were so gracious and respectful, it was really amazing to observe their tenacity when they had obviously suffered pain for months.
The following day the clinic moved to an infant school, where we managed to see around 170 child patients, and the health team brushed and fluoridated their teeth.
A long, hot drive next to our final destination Siem Reap, where we liased with a new charity See Beyond Borders working in schools in the area, providing running water, health education and teaching support to the school staff.
Here we engaged with teachers, community leaders, parents and children offering a handwashing forum, toothbrush instruction with fluoride toothpaste and diet advice to reduce the frequency of sugary snacks and drinks.
The parents seemed empowered to help their children and are positively making a difference in this poor district to their lives and their families.
We have seem some incredible sights, finishing the final day with the Temples of Angkor, but it is the smiles, the humour and humility, being acceptance by this incredible nation of people that has been so destroyed that will stay with us. We are all richer for the truly unforgettable experience that Freya and I will never forget, and hopefully be a legacy of hope for the future.