Volunteer dentists travel to Guatemala to provide care to the poor
by Jessica Langdon
LEAWOOD — If a child somewhere in northeastern Kansas complains of a toothache, chances are good that a dentist will check it out within a few days and find a way to relieve the pain.
Imagine, then, a 15-year-old girl in Guatemala who starts suffering in November. Her mother tells her to hold on, assuring her help is on the way — in late January or early February.
The story of this teenaged girl is true and, unfortunately, isn’t even unusual. It’s one of many stories that have touched Dr. Mike Kahler over the years.
“That’s life in Guatemala,” explained Kahler. He and his wife Peggy are members of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
The Kahlers have been part of the Curé of Ars Dental Mission since its inception. They left this month for their 15th trip to Guatemala.
The volunteers’ goal is to provide much-needed care to the poor there. The Kahlers are joining more than a dozen volunteers from the United States — plus two Guatemalan dentists — to bring better dental health to hundreds of people. This year’s trip runs Jan. 28-Feb. 4.
The vast majority of the people they see are children ages 3 to 18, and this might be the only dental care those patients will get.
Now retired, Kahler was practicing full time when Curé of Ars pastor Msgr. Charles McGlinn first approached him about the possibility of providing dental care in Guatemala.
Some medical help was already being provided, but dental care was practically nonexistent.
The couple was quick to agree and, after the first visit, the Kahlers were hooked.
The Curé group had a long-established relationship with an Italian nun there — Sister Marcella — who headed up a community that provided a safe place for women and children who had been abused.
There, the volunteers with the dental mission would eventually see hundreds of children and adults — mothers, teachers and others.
Many of the people the Kahlers will see on this trip will now be familiar ones, people they have seen year after year. Children they first met as toddlers are now in their late teens.
But it’s likely to be the unfamiliar faces — those they’ve never seen for dental care — who will need the most help.
The volunteers also work with a home for children not far away.
If time and circumstances allow, the mission group will open up its services to the public on the last day or so of the trip.
They don’t advertise that they’re there; when they arrive, in fact, the group gets quietly to work in the undertaking that keeps everyone busy.
The team members stick together as well, traveling only during certain hours, with safety always a priority.
A lot of help
Donations are what make these trips possible. Expenses total about $6,000 per trip, even with each volunteer paying his or her on way to the tune of about $1,200.
The group includes several dentists, a hygienist, a dental student and other volunteers.
Rosina and Jeff Root, both members of Curé of Ars, take care of a lot of the logistical arrangements for the group, from flights to transportation in Guatemala.
“It’s huge,” Kahler said.
Their work frees him up to handle the dental end of things.
The volunteers travel by bus once they arrive in Guatemala, where interpreters help them with language barriers.
All dental supplies — right down to they toothbrushes the distribute to their patients — are donated.
Over the years, even larger equipment, like dentist chairs, has made its way to Guatemala for use by this group.
‘Excited for newness’
Sister Marcella has set aside a particular area specifically for the dental mission.
When the team arrives, members will find that the chairs are lined up, ready for patients.
And their patients will be waiting for them.
“Oh my gosh, they’re charging the bus,” said Peggy with a laugh, remembering the children’s eagerness in years past. “They’re just excited for newness.”
Because dads are generally absent from the lives of the children here, the kids are especially excited to greet the men.
“Of course, we take a lot of gifts,” added Peggy. One of the volunteers constantly collects Beanie Babies and takes 1,000 on each trip.
“If they see the dentist at all, they get one,” said Peggy.
Only chance for care
The dental team employs a triage system, determining first what each patient needs, then grouping them according to level of need. They have places for exams, surgery and cleanings and fillings.
“We mainly do cleanings for the children,” said Kahler. They also do fillings and extractions.
They don’t do root canals or other procedures that would demand a lot care afterward.
“This is the only chance these people have for care,” said Kahler. “They have no regular dentist. There are no sixmonth recalls.”
And dental hygiene can come as an afterthought in a place where poverty is the norm.
“They have no concept of toothpaste,” Kahler said, “because they’re basically worried about eating.”
So the mission team works with the local educators in an effort to teach good oral hygiene to the young.
“We get a lot of cooperation from the schoolteachers,” he said. This way, they can teach the children when they’re very young how to keep their mouths healthy.
“It’s easier to establish a habit when they’re three or four than when they’re 18,” said Kahler.
There is no charge for any of the work the group does.
Still, they receive an enormous payback in another form — knowing the people in Guatemala have a much better chance of maintaining good oral health, thanks to their efforts.
“We’ve seen great improvement,” said Peggy.
They’ve seen some of the same smiles for 15 years now. Behind the smiles are good, bright, promising kids. They hope for the best for them, but know that the opportunity they wish for them doesn’t always exist.
‘There for one reason’
During any given trip, the missionaries see an average of 175 people per day.
“All of us are there for one reason — just to work as hard as we can for as long as we can,” Kahler said.
If enough dentists and other volunteers are interested in making this trip, he would be willing to stay for two weeks in the future to accommodate two sessions.
“If you’ve got a dental license, it’s all you need,” he said.
They’ve had people from several states hear about the mission and join the trips. And once people go, they want to do it again.
These are people who are willing to step outside their comfort zones, Kahler noted.
Peggy laughed, describing some of the adventures.
“Maybe we’ll get to shower today,” she said with a laugh, adding that some days they even have hot water.
And they’re careful to use bottled water for drinking and sterilization.
Any moment of inconvenience is hardly even noteworthy to this group. It’s just for a few days, but their time makes such a difference to hundreds.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Peggy.
Even two of the Kahlers’ children have made trips with the group.
This trip, the couple left for Guatemala earlier than the rest of the team, having promised to stay for a few days with the two Guatemalan dentists, Dr. Vanessa Noguera and Dr. Tatiana Espana. The women have been working with them for 13 years.
“A dentist has a unique opportunity,” said Kahler. Unlike some medical fields, dental work can often provide an instant and lasting fix.
“Somebody can be really hurting and you can do something immediately for them and they’re out of pain,” Kahler said.
He believes this mission is something every dentist should do.
“I think all of us are given certain gifts,” he said. “And we should share those gifts, if possible, for the betterment of humankind.”