Monday, October 19, 2009

Mission: Tennessee

In my last year of dental school, I heard from several students that there was a Buffalo dentist/pilot who would fly to various locations in the USA to provide donated dental care to the under-served people there. Apparently he would take a few students along with him for each trip. Last month, I sent this dentist an email inquiring about his next trip (pointing out that though I was no longer a student, I'd still love o be involved). I was excited to read an email response saying "My next trip is to Appalachia in Tennessee on October 17 and 18th, and you've made the short-list of people invited to come. Respond ASAP!"

The dentist, Dr. D'Angelo, belongs to a group called Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps , which is a collection of health professionals providing health-care free of charge to needy people around the globe. I was excited about this particular RAM event, since it would be benefiting my fellow Americans. Dr. D'Angelo (a pilot with over 2500 hours of flight experience and a Captain of the Civil Air Patrol) flies his own Cessna 210 and his friend Joe, also a RAM volunteer, would be flying in his Cirrus SR22, each taking as many dental volunteers that would fit.

The 4 of us in the plane all had head-sets, and we listened to Dr. D'Angelo describe the mission trips. He has been participating in RAM missions for years, has traveled across the USA, and to countries like the Dominican Republic, providing dental care. For this mission, we were going to Winchester, Tennessee, and would work 7am-7pm Saturday, & until 2pm on Sunday.

The participants from UB's Dental School in Buffalo, NY, for this trip were the pilots, Dr. D'Angelo and Joe, senior dental students Eric and Matt, junior dental students Nina, Chintin, Aman, Laura and Vera, Dr. D'Angelo's assistant Pat, and me.

Saturday morning we all woke up at 6am at our Hotel, ate breakfast, and then were off to the Franklin County High School for the mission work. This high school is the largest one I've ever seen. It serves the whole county, and is located in Winchester. Although it was cold (35F) and windy, there were over 100 people waiting outside to register. Inside, there were many more people (many having arrived the night before to get in line!). What I didn't realize prior to the event was there would be other health professionals there including a large optometry group, general health and HIV testing as well.

The dental group was set up in an auxiliary gym. There were 30 dental chairs set up, a large sterilization table, a long table with hundreds of instruments, along with dentists, hygienists and assistants ready to work. I worked straight through from 7am until 2pm before stopping for lunch. In the afternoon I was happy to have the help of Kayela, a student interested in a career in the dental profession who was volunteering her time at the mission by assisting not only me, but many of the dentists in the operative and oral surgery procedures. She's going to be a valuable asset to the dental community once she is finished with school, and I wish her the best of luck! We wrapped things up around 6pm, ate dinner at the high school, and then headed back to the hotel. I was completely exhausted, however, the whole group of us went to Dr. D'Angelo's room for a little party before bed-time.

At the party, Joe, the other pilot, discussed about another branch of charity work that he and Dr. D'Angelo participate in. Not only do the two of them fly on dental mission trips, but also participate in 'Angel Flight,' which takes transplant patients to hospitals across the country to receive their transplants (absolutely for free). They're on-call for this group, and make one or more flights per week at the drop of a hat.

The next morning, I woke up around 6am again, and again, we were off to the races. We arrived at 7:30am, and I got started with extractions and fillings right away. By 9am, I was approached by a lady I was introduced to the day before named Catherine (a nurse from Colorado who was at the mission on her own hoping to provide medical assistance). Serendipitously, she was asked to help in the dental clinic, and boy was she great to have as an assistant! Even though she had no prior experience helping with tooth extractions or fillings, she was immensely helpful! She also provided a unique perspective as a nurse offering health advice to the patients.

After a quick lunch, I wrapped up the afternoon with a marathon tooth pulling, taking out 8 rotten teeth in one lady's mouth. By 2:30pm, all of our bags were packed up, equipment was loaded in the van, and we were off to the airfield once again.

Between the people such as Catherine and Kayela who assisted me, the students from Georgia's Augusta Dental School, the dentists from all over the country, and the other volunteers, I was happy to have met such nice people. In addition, the patients on this mission were incredibly appreciative and kind.

In total, I pulled 37 teeth, and did 7 fillings. Assuming a general dentist may charge at a minimum around $100 per simple extraction, $150 per surgical extraction, and approximately $100-200 per filling, I did about $5000 of donated dental service for the mission. Overall, our group of 11 did around $52,000 in donated dental services: an outstanding accomplishment!

The knowledge I received while in the mission clinic from Dr. D'Angelo and the other dentists, combined with the unique experience of flying to this mission, and all of the new people I met, made this an incredibly memorable and rewarding weekend. Also, Dr. D'Angelo let me fly the plane for a while. How unbelievably cool is that?

For more information on these mission trips, and the wonderful people involved, check out:
Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps
Flying Dentists Association
Dr. D'Angelo's articles on Flying Dentists
Angel Flight