A Clinic Without Walls
By Andrea Cruz
Service for the sake of humanity – service just because. That is the only agenda for a rare few who feel compelled to use their skills to alleviate pain and suffering of others and help provide basic necessities of life – no matter where either party calls home.
Five years ago Winter Haven dentist Steven Hewett and his wife, Cara, sought an opportunity to serve in a third world country. Their search led them to a hard-to-reach area in the Guatemalan mountains called Chichicastenango, well-known for having the largest market for woven goods in all of Central America.
With their 13- and 15-year-old children, in addition to 12 dental students from Case Western University, they set off on what would be a very memorable experience for all. Nobody quite knew what to expect.
“The first time we got there, the clinic doors opened and we were in a makeshift space, basically on a patio with plastic chairs lined up,” Cara Hewett says. “There was a tarp over our heads in case it rained.”
But they made the bare bones environment work. For the first couple of years they set up the clinic, Cara scrubbed instruments. “But then the Mayan women who got to know us took the reins on that and learned to assist. They’d scrub instruments and sterilize them in an improvised outdoor sink and pressure pot system,” she says.
With the help of the student dentists, Hewett’s team saw hundreds of patients a day – they estimate up to 400. Once word spread that dental care was being offered, long lines formed – 98% Mayan – waiting to be seen.
Up until Dr. Hewett’s team got there, the only dental care provided to the residents were cleanings by a hygienist who hadn’t been properly trained.
“She had watched somebody (clean teeth) in Guatemala city over a couple of days, then came back and decided she could clean teeth, too,” Cara Hewett says. “And she did a fairly good job of it.”
In the early years, doing fillings was a big deal – extractions were more the norm.
“Their sweet, gentle smile, typically with a few missing or decayed teeth, was status quo in their villages,” Dr. Hewett says.
Many of the teeth couldn’t be salvaged, Cara Hewett says.
“There’s a lot of abscessed teeth, a ton of decay, but what we found each year is that we did more and more restorations, rather than extractions,” she says.
In addition to oral hygiene education, a new toothbrush and toothpaste were sent home with each patient.
“We would tell them that even if you can’t afford toothpaste, use salt to get the food off your teeth,” Cara Hewett says.
“Educating the Mayans about the process of tooth decay and prevention as well as aiding their ability to eat a meal without pain and suffering is my long term goal,” Dr. Hewett says.
The funding for a majority of the items the Hewetts brought to Guatemala – toothbrushes, gloves, gauze, filling material, anesthetics, needles – came out of their own pockets. They received very few material donations from dental companies. Most groups that travel to help in a third world country go with a church or other organization, however, the Hewetts went completely on their own.
“Because of that there’s no agenda to what we’ve done,” she says. “We provide service just because, we don’t have any motivation or ultimatums about it. It’s providing care to humans just because they deserve it. It’s just service.”
Cara Hewett, a trained counselor, says that their service in Guatemala has been very eye opening for all involved.
“Your first world problems suddenly disappear, it totally changes your perception of how you view the world and your perspective on what you really need in your life to live,” she says. The Hewett’s children have also grown from the experiences in Central America.
“My daughter would just as soon shop at a thrift store because she gets the frivolousness of designer shoes,” Cara Hewett says. “Spending four or five hundred dollars on a pair of shoes could put three children in school for an entire year in Guatemala.”
Things like education and health care in Guatemala are privileges, not rights, particularly if one is Mayan because they’re considered second class.
The Hewetts realize that their altruistic intentions may be controversial as it could be argued that there are many locals who could use this same kind of free dental care.
“Anyone who’s ever traveled into a third world environment wouldn’t say that,” she says. “We have our basic needs met. There’s not a child in this country whose not granted an education. And if you are in the system of Medicaid, you can be seen. They’re not going to deny you, or turn you around. That is the difference and people need to understand this.”
This year’s May trip was different – because Guatemalans can’t always get out of their villages, the Hewett’s decided to expand their clinic to an area called Panajachel.
They also traveled with Winter Haven ophthalmologist Dr. Gary Schemmer of Fischer, Schemmer, Silbiger & Moraczewski, who gave eye exams and glasses to the indigenous people.
Dr. Schemmer is not new to this kind of service in a third world country, having already set up an eye clinic in the West Indies, specifically St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 12 years ago.
Ophthalmology services provided by Dr. Schemmer on the Caribbean island also included cataract and glaucoma surgeries, and treatment of diabetic retinopathy (damage to the retina caused by complications of diabetes).
Dr. Schemmer says that there’s not much that beats the feeling of giving back. He recalls having done cataract surgery on a patient who was essentially blind and had polio as a child.
He was unable to walk, so his grown grandson carried him around like a child,” Dr. Schemmer says. “The day after surgery his wife was obviously upset about something, concerned he may have had a complication. So, naturally, Dr. Schemmer asked what the problem was.
“She explained that he had been singing from the time he left the hospital because he could see again, and she was tired of hearing him sing,” he says. “With that says the patient proceeded to sing me a gospel song and thanked me for returning his vision so he could read again.”
The doctors hope to return to Guatemala in 4 to 6 months with the help of Mayanfamilies.org, a nonprofit that works to better the lives of the impoverished indigenous people in the Panajachel region.
In addition to expanding the locations, Cara Hewett says bigger things are in the works for their future trips. They are working with Rotary Club of Winter Haven to get funds for equipment. They also took a film crew this year to show at the annual meeting of the American Academy for Implant Dentistry.
“We are barely scratching the surface. We need to put a dent in the problems that exist just for the dentistry.”