I paused for a moment, hardly believing what was happening. Twenty minutes earlier we had come to visit the missionary dentist in her makeshift office to see what tools she recommended for mobile dentistry.
After I had watched one cleaning, Dr. Gabriela thought I should give the ultrasonic scaler a try. Now I was sitting in the midst of a plethora of dental tools, a mask on my face, and my toes perched on a pedal. There beside me sat my first blissfully ignorant patient, willingly yielding an open mouth. Dr. Gabriela prayed with her next patient and I followed in suite.
The afternoon quickly slipped away as several more volunteers sat on the stretchy cords of the improvised dental chair. It wasn't long before Dr. Gabriela suggested that DJ and I join her the following week at the AMe Bolivia (Accion Medica) shelter a few hours out of Santa Cruz. And so we did.
Sunday afternoon we all piled into a pick-up truck and headed into the mountains. The AMe Bolivia director, Gheorghe Micoti, is a good friend who coordinated many of the medical flights back in 2008-2009 when DJ was flying in the northern jungles of Bolivia. The property of the former ADRA orphanage, Cerenid, now serves as a happy home for more than 25 disabled patients. Not only are the surroundings breath-taking and the food good, but the volunteers work day and night to keep these beautiful people cared for and safe.
Over the next several days, we helped out as we could. The AMe shelter is in great need of volunteers, so a few extra hands in the kitchen, during bathing hour or fixing leaky pipes are always welcome. We also stayed busy helping Dr. Gabriela – myself with the cleaning scaler and DJ administering simple anesthesia, pulling teeth, and creating denture molds. We got some excellent practice (~20 cleanings, ~15 teeth pulled), but our experience was much more than in dentistry. It was in meeting and loving the least of these…
One of the first teeth DJ pulled.
His eyes got big and his hands spread apart, motioning to my belly. "Hm hm," came the grunts from his sealed lips. Pelon has Down's Syndrome among other things and doesn't like to talk much. But his toothless grin and his bright eyes told the rest of the story. "Oh, so you think my belly is big?" I replied with a smile. "Well, you're right, Pelon. But you better be careful to share those bananas with the others like they told you to or your belly might get as big as mine," I laughed jokingly. More grunts and head nods told me I'd been heard, but six bananas later, I thought it better than to joke again, reality being too close indeed!
Cleaning Pelon's three teeth :D
An acute laugh caught my attention from behind. It was late afternoon and bath-time for the youngsters. I turned to see Pelon driving the wheelchair at a steady run with rider 7-yr. old Alex squealing in delight. Cerebral palsy is no hindrance to little Alex's ability to exude joy. "I always worry about them, that they'll tip over on the uneven grass," says Jacqueline, a much more capable member at the shelter, "but they never do."
Dr. Gabriela feeds Alex some lunch.
Lizeth, also known as "Flaca," Roxy and the baby followed along behind. Lizeth, a 16-yr. old, also with Down's, arrived at the shelter just over a year ago. The abusive older man with whom she lived had left her at the hospital, abandoned after a positive pregnancy test confirmation. She arrived at the shelter five months pregnant. Director Gheorghe convinced the authorities to let her keep the baby, promising that they would take good care of them both. And have they ever! Roxy, a Columbian volunteer, takes these two under her wing and treats the baby as if it's her own. In addition to being the sole charge of the kitchen and helping in the bathing of the patients, Roxy watches baby Luis and little Alex. From feeding them to changing their diapers, I'm awed at how she manages to serve three good meals every day!
Lizeth and baby Luis.
Ines and Jacqueline are the master clothes washers. Ines, though a woman of few words, washes the other patients' clothes with speed, efficiency and a big smile despite the fact that she only has one working arm. Jacqueline, on the other hand, is full of words and equally as eager to help. She's also good at convincing her companions to comply with what they're asked to do, which makes her help invaluable.
Ines and Jacqueline
Some shelter members are easy to remember because of their unique temperaments. I think of Mickey and I have to laugh. He paced back and forth all morning between the porches. Finally, we convinced him to sit down in my "dental" chair and let me have a look in his mouth. A sour sort, I'd say, but he did finally agree to let me brush his teeth with a toothbrush. He needed serious deep cleaning and dental work, but refused to open his mouth when any other tools were brought out. He stood and, with a bird's eye view, watched as I cleaned other patients' teeth. He sat down several more times in the cleaning chair, but never agreed to open his mouth!
Now meet Josue. He's really hard to understand, but in context, I get about 40%! He is one of the most OCD detailed people I have ever met, but uses it to be helpful. If you can't find the plug to the wash sink, just ask Josue. If you need to hang laundry, Josue knows where he's lodged the color-coded clothespins wire. He might even point out how he's changed all the green towels to have purple clothespins on them!
Near the brick oven you'll often find several of the patients animatedly stacking and readying the firewood. Others might be helping repair the fence posts around the property. Some are not capable of helping as much due to mental or physical disabilities, but even the man who was deaf, dumb and mostly blind got his teeth cleaned. I simply had to give up trying to communicate that the toothbrush was not for consumption and let him chew on it.
As we spent morning and evening with these people I realized just how truly pleasant they were. These are precious souls for whom Jesus died. Just because they were given a hard lot in life doesn't mean that they will be any less perfect in heaven. And so our hearts grew, little by little, day by day, until the sad moment came when we had to leave.
In hindsight, I realize that the depth of my learning came not in the dental skills I practiced, but in the love God put in my heart to love the least of these.