April 2008

Healing in Haiti

In a country where 60 percent of people have never been to a dentist, Marjorie Brisard finds her calling

By Jacqueline Mitchell

Dilshan Gunawardena, D08, remembers the small shock he felt when the little girl in his dental chair opened her mouth to reveal widespread decay. "There were dark spots from canine to canine. There must have been 15 surfaces to repair," he recalls. "But she looked beautiful afterward."

“People wanted to learn so much,” Marjorie Brisard, D08, says of the patients in Haiti she helped. “Some were a little afraid because they’d never been to the dentist before. But they still wanted treatment.” Photo: Joanie Tobin

Gunawardena was among the 12 Tufts students, faculty and staff who traveled to Haiti last summer on an oral health mission organized by Marjorie Brisard, D08. Over a period of two weeks, the Tufts team provided care at three sites in the Caribbean nation. Despite the heat, spotty availability of electricity and limited dental equipment, the group saw up to 150 patients each day.

That number only begins to describe the need for oral health services in Haiti. Roughly the size of the state of Maryland, Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Some 80 percent of its nine million residents live beneath the poverty line, and people with toothaches often resort to rinsing with gasoline to dull the pain. Gunawardena estimates the team had to turn away at least as many people as it treated.

When Brisard began planning the Haiti mission, she knew what she was getting into. A native of Port-au-Prince, she grew up visiting children at the orphanage her grandparents opened in 1988. She left the island to attend St. John's University in New York, where she majored in biology. But Brisard-who comes from a family of public servants-always intended to go back and help the people of Haiti.

Oral health, she says, is not emphasized in Haiti. "A majority of the population doesn't know why you need to see a dentist," she says.

The Tufts trip wasn't Brisard's first mission to Haiti. Her uncle, Joseph Baptiste, is an oral surgeon outside Washington, D.C., who travels to Haiti monthly to provide dental services in his native country, where 60 percent of people have no access to oral health care. Brisard, who says she always knew she wanted to be a dentist, has been on missions with him to five different rural villages. After approaching Dr. David Paul, D89, assistant professor of oral diagnostics and a veteran of previous Tufts oral health missions, Brisard began planning the logistics, raising money and recruiting volunteers.

"It was a well-organized trip," says Paul. "A lot of the success came down to the planning."

Despite some meddling from Hurricane Dean, Brisard returned home to Haiti in August 2007 with classmates Pamela Abraham, Sophana Hem, Warren Jones, Quan Nghiem, Ann Hua, Dilshan Gunawardena, Guimy Cesar, Claudia Maiolo, all D08, as well as dental assistant Renald Joseph, David Paul and Leopoldo Correa, assistant professor of general dentistry, in tow.

The team spent the first week working at the Max Cadet Foundation Dental Clinic in Port-au-Prince, where Brisard's parents hosted the group. Her father drove the students and dentists to the clinic, brought them lunch midday and then drove them back home, where Brisard's mother had prepared dinner.

Next the team traveled to rural Jacmel, a town of 15,000 on the island's south coast, to the Suzanne and Leon O. Baptiste Orphanage, named after its founders, Brisard's grandparents. Home to 1,000 children, who are educated and cared for by Salesiennes nuns, the orphanage is a two-hour drive from the nearest dental clinic. The first dentists ever to visit the orphanage, the Tufts team saw nearly 200 children and 50 adults during their visit.

With no radiography or sterilization equipment at their disposal, the students devoted their energy and finite supply of sterile tools to fluoride treatments, routine cleanings, fillings and extractions. They also focused on education, using teddy bears with teeth to demonstrate proper oral hygiene to the children. "People wanted to learn so much. Some of them didn't even know how to brush their teeth," says Brisard. "Some were a little afraid because they'd never been to the dentist before. But they still wanted treatment."

At the nearby GHESKIO HIV Center, also in Jacmel, the Tufts team saw 25 HIV-infected children and learned firsthand how the deadly virus can ravage a child's mouth. In addition to suffering from diarrhea, fever, pneumonia and tuberculosis, many of the children had swollen glands, oral yeast infections and recurring mouth ulcers. "The more I go to places with such great need, the more it humbles me," says Paul. "The memories we bring back are not about dentistry."

Gunawardena, who plans to become an oral surgeon, long wanted to do a mission, whether in the United States or in his native Sri Lanka. So when he heard that his classmate Brisard had planned a trip to Haiti, he jumped at the chance. "It's nice to be able to help people. That's why I got into dentistry in the first place," he says. "I'm hungry to go out and do more. There is so much we could be doing."

As for Brisard, who will start Tufts' postgraduate program in periodontology after she receives her D.M.D. in May, she'll head off to Haiti in June on another oral health mission, this one sponsored by her uncle's nonprofit group, the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH). Her hope is that, one day, Tufts dental students will be able to work in Haiti as part of a formal externship program.

Her long-term goals are even more ambitious. In addition to building a dental clinic in Jacmel, Brisard dreams of establishing a training center for dentists, hygienists and dental assistants to address Haiti's shortage of oral health-care providers. "One of my goals is to go there and train dental professionals so people don't have to go to [Port-au-Prince] to get oral health care," she says. "Going back and giving back to the community is so important."

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu. This story first appeared in the winter issue of Tufts Dental Medicine.

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