Global Health Nexus, Spring 1999

Bringing Care to the Dominican Republic - NYU Dentistry Continues to Show Its Heart in Free Clinic

For one week last November, the NYU Dental Outreach Team once again opened the doors of a temporary clinic to villagers in the Dominican Republic, province of Puerto Plata, to provide on-site care to needy Dominicans. Both adults and children began arriving at 4 a.m. and waited patiently in line, in the rain, until check-in and screenings got underway at 8:30 a.m.

The NYU Dental Outreach Team, consisting of three third-year students, 10 fourth-year students, and seven clinicians and staff from the College's Minority Oral Health Research Center, were joined by four dentists from the Dominican Department of Health. As on previous visits, nearly 3,000 services were provided, including 782 exams, 84 sealants, 462 amalgams, 306 composites, 566 preventive treatments, and 643 extractions.

Also as on previous trips, the NYU Dental Outreach Team was received with great enthusiasm. Team members were welcomed at the airport by the director for oral health services of the Dominican Department of Health, who also visited the outreach site during the week, and the event was given wide media coverage. However, the number of people who wanted to be treated far outweighed the team's ability to provide quality care.

Dr. Lidia Kiremidjian-Schumacher, the team leader, said that more team members are needed. "We went with 20 NYU team members and treated 843 patients," said Dr. Kiremidjian-Schumacher. "If we had had a 50 percent increase in personnel -- 30 members -- we easily could have treated double that number."

"The problem," she continued, "is financing, especially for transportation. The NYU College of Dentistry and the Minority Oral Health Research Center have consistently provided funds; Colgate-Palmolive's Dominican Republic component has provided a mobile unit and 'gift bags' for distribution at all the sites we visited, and Cabarete Palm Beach Condos have provided free accommodations and the services of their management staff at the outreach sites.

"In addition, the Dominican Air Force provided armed guards 24 hours a day, local establishments provided free food, and community members assisted in the various aspects of running the program. But we have severely limited transportation funds. Recently, American Airlines made a generous gift to help defray transportation costs. We eagerly seek more private supporters like American Airlines to help us meet this need so that we can bring along more team members and treat more people. The oral health needs of the Dominican population are severe beyond anything seen in even the most underserved areas in the United States, and right now the only hope for improving the oral health status of Dominicans rests with NYU Dentistry's ability to continue to work with the health department of the Dominican Republic and the dental association of the Dominican Republic to gather data and to assess and use this data as the basis for developing effective dental public health programs."

One example in particular underscores the life-changing importance of the team's work. It concerns a condition that is especially prevalent in the Dominican Republic, ankyloglossia -- more commonly known as "tongue-tie" -- a congenital defect in which the tongue is affixed to the floor of the mouth. Fortunately, the remedy is very simple -- a two-minute surgical procedure that permits the tongue to return to a normal position. In the Dominican Republic, however, the condition typically goes untreated and, as a result, many children are never able to speak or eat normally.

After the first child suffering from tongue-tie -- a nine-and-a-half-year-old boy -- was successfully treated by the NYU team, word spread rapidly throughout the area, and the next day five additional children and adults came for treatment.

"Within minutes," said Dr. Kiremidjian-Schumacher, "we were able to change these people's lives. All of us involved with this project recognize how privileged we are to be able to make an impact of that kind in a community in such dire need. With the country's resources now dedicated to recovery from Hurricane Georges, and less money than ever available for dental public health programs, we have intensified our commitment to help alleviate the immense oral health burden of the Dominican government and its people."