Nine days that I will never forget. After months of anticipating, stressing over deadlines, struggling to coordinate with everyone, and praying for financial provision, last Saturday the eight of us boarded a flight to Panama for a spring break like no other.
Our group was made up of only pre-dental students, freshman through juniors, all members of our student organization Baylor ASDA. We planned the dental mission trip through International Service Learning, and despite some miscommunication early on while coordinating, we absolutely loved our actual experience in Panama with our leader, Sol, and dentist, Dra. Cruz. When we arrived, we were greeted by Sol, who would end up becoming our biggest blessing and friend. One other pre-optometry student from Ohio State, Magnolia, joined us at the airport, and like Sol, by the end of the week she was one of us and made it painful to say goodbye.
If I had to describe the country of Panama, I’d say colorful, both urban and primitive, joyful, friendly, sweaty, slow (as in not impatient and hurried like America), and underappreciated. The people there love their families and neighbors, delicious passion-fruit and other juices, fried everything (we seriously only ate carbs, meat, and more plantains than I could imagine at every meal), soccer, and apparently massive shopping malls.
We stayed at a retreat center-hostel of sorts with no A/C or hot water. There were fans in each room, and I promise no one missed the hot water after being out in mid-90s temps all day. There was a kitchen with a sweet little lady that cooked our meals when we didn’t go out as well as a few other people that stayed there and made Spanish small talk with us every day.
The first full day there was dedicated to a crash course in dental Spanish and also a workshop of learning what it was we would actually be doing in clinic. Dra. Cruz was so sweet and helpful, with just a perfect amount of sass and desire to challenge us. She explained to us that their dental school education there is five years – total! No undergrad, no entrance exam…just saying right out of high school, “I think I want to be a dentist,” and boom – five years later you’re done. If they only knew how much stress we go through here about our GPA ,DAT, and getting a coveted acceptance letter after years of blood, sweat, and tears. After just one afternoon and serious bonding over getting all in each others’ mouths and practicing using explorers, mirrors, and scalers, we were proficient in diagnosing and determining types of caries, the typical timeline of dentition based on a kid’s age, loading and prepping the anesthesia injection, and how to set up the tray for general procedures. We also got to have some fun later that night learning some traditional Panamanian folk music and dancing.
Before starting up the clinic, we spent a day walking around the surrounding villages (which we found out later were significantly sketchy and supposedly dangerous areas) doing house visits and conducting dental health surveys. Our clinic would be focused on ages 4-13, so we took turns asking the kids questions in Spanish – things like if they brushed their teeth or had been to the dentist before. Several answered no to each. The thought that I would be some of these kids’ first experience ever with dentistry was a huge responsibility that seemed nerve-racking but also a chance to show them that it didn’t have to be a scary thing. Not only would I be doing dental exams for the first time, but I would have to calm the fears of only Spanish-speaking four year olds. No big deal, right?
Many of the homes we were welcomed into lacked real floors, ceilings, or furniture of any kind, and yet the families all seemed so content and focused on what really mattered – being together. I thought how I would react in their situation to a bunch of wealthy American college kids in scrubs wanting to come in to my dirty home and ask me questions about my lack of dental care. Uh, no thanks. I know here at home, I am quick to make excuses about how I’m too busy or even ignore the couple of Mormons with backpacks knocking on my door or the girl scout trying to sell me her last box of cookies to reach her fundraising goal. We were not turned away by one Panamanian family.
I was so excited for the first day of clinic. We set up all the equipment in a small room of a local church and immediately entered business mode. We each had partners and would take turns doing the actual exam while the other person charted the cavities and treatment and held the flashlight. My first partner, Sam, and I were mostly efficient but quick to laugh at our frequent mistakes at first and moments of doubting if we actually knew what were doing. After checking for cavities, cleaning with the scaler, flossing, and mouthwashing, Dra. Cruz would come double-check and quiz us on the patient’s condition and possible treatment. Even if they had maybe seven cavities, most only received one or two fillings or extractions due to limits on time and resources. It was so neat to watch everyone and be able to see each others’ strengths while getting a glimpse at how great of dentists we all will be. Some with steadier hands, others playful and kid-loving, some intrigued by the clinical science, others able to comfort in another language, and those who loved the intense, bloody stuff. We would stay with our patient as they went to the chair for their procedure and were responsible for setting up the tray with the appropriate instruments and materials as well as assisting. There were ample criers and squirmers because of the needle or drill, and as cute as their little smiles were, some of the difficult cases confirmed my long-ago decision to not specialize in pediatrics. They were still sweet for the most part, and their parent would be so appreciative of the care we provided them. At the end of each day, knowing all the joy we were able to give just through cleaning teeth or providing preventative treatment for free solidified why I want to do this with my life. A smile is the same in any language.
On the last day of clinic, Kathy and I were partnered up, and the pace of the day seemed a lot quicker than the other days. We saw about six patients between the two of us, and we each ended up doing all the steps for an entire filling except for the drilling part obviously, and (even though I shouldn’t really say it) basically an extraction each, too! It technically wasn’t a whole tooth, just a buried root tip left behind from a primary tooth, so Dra. Cruz simply looked at me and said, “Do you want to do it?” After shadowing an oral surgeon all summer and seeing endless complicated extractions, I was pretty confident that just an elevator would have that thing out in no time. Also with ISL, we as students are not liable for anything. If something were to go wrong (which nothing ever did), they are responsible. It’s up to them to just trust that we wouldn’t ever do anything we weren’t comfortable doing.
We were able to go out for dinner several nights to authentic restaurants to unwind from a long day and have some fun. Most places offered various fried carbs like yucca, cheesy potatoes, or tamales (not like the Tex Mex item you’re thinking of – more like a cornbread), and an abundance of meats and seafood. Their local beers and other drinks were also a popular thing to try. I enjoyed genuine and deep conversations as well as never-ending laughs with this group that had become like family for a week.
On Friday, we toured Panama City’s Children’s Hospital, and we learned a lot about their health care system in general. They are the only major hospital and ER in the entire country, and they also provide treatment for everyone even if they’re unable to pay. The building was very old, in poor condition, and obviously lacking in funds, but we could tell the doctors we spoke with were in their profession for the right reason. We wrapped up the rest of the day with a visit to the canal, souvenir shopping, and another authentic dinner out.
Saturday was our last full day in Panama, and we left at 6:20 to catch an early ferry ride to the island of Taboga for some relaxing on the beach. It was absolutely gorgeous. It definitely had a tropical Caribbean vibe, but it was mixed with an old European coastal village charm. We lounged, read, napped, and swam the bulk of the day. Despite staying in the shade of our umbrella for 90% of the time and liberally reapplying sunscreen, I still managed to get an embarrassingly random and intense sunburn on my shins and outer thighs. Before heading back we enjoyed one last meal at a beachfront bar, complete with ice cold pina coladas.
We said our reluctant goodbyes to Dra. Cruz, Sol, and Magnolia, and before we knew it, we were back in Texas on Sunday afternoon. Thinking back on how God moved in and through us throughout the week, I know that we were able to be such a witness by our acts of service to the people of Panama. We were not the only ones making a difference, though. I believe our patients and their families, Sol, Dra. Cruz, and everyone we came across deeply impacted each and every one of us in a powerful way. Another incredible blessing was simply the friendships among us that grew richer each day, and how we are all now connected by this shared experience. God gave me such a clear confirmation that I’m following his incredible plans for my life by continuing on this journey to becoming a dentist and how global missions can play a part in that. The fact that I will get to do this for the rest of my life makes me so excited for the future. I’m extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to go to Panama, and I’ll always have the memories of this trip to carry with me.