During spring break 2018, I traveled to Quito, Ecuador with my classmates and local dentists. I had never gone on a mission trip before, so I tried to approach everything with an open mind and enthusiasm. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I can’t wait to go back next year.
Since dental schools are increasing the availability of international service trips, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. “Abra” and “cierra.” I was a French minor in undergrad, so my Spanish skills were pretty much nonexistent. I picked up some words here and there, but 90 percent of my communication with patients was “open” and “close.”
2. Appreciate your translators. I can’t stress this enough. You may have great conversational Spanish, but are you prepared to qualify pain? Or explain an occlusal adjustment? Translators are the key to making an impact on your patients, especially when it comes to oral hygiene instructions. Make sure to treat them well, and be sure to ask if they have any dental issues, too.
3. Be patient while traveling. Everyone knows how fun international travel can be, especially when changing time zones means jet lag and possible language barriers. Stay organized, stay prepared, and always keep your passport and ticket in the same place so you don’t have a 3 a.m. heart attack in the middle of the airport!
4. Take your medical precautions. Most schools will recommend a certain set of vaccinations and prescriptions. Along with Hep A and Hep B, I had to take a live vaccine for typhoid. My PCP also prophylactically prescribed medication for motion sickness, altitude sickness and traveler’s diarrhea. It may seem like overkill, but a large amount of our group came down with some fun Shigella, and having meds on hand was super helpful. (Be sure to talk to your physician regarding your travel plans.)
5. Ergonomics may not be 100 percent. We had beach chairs and folding chairs for patients and operators, and our light came exclusively from our loupes. As a result, we definitely sacrificed our ergonomics in order to see what we were doing. It was only four-and-a-half days of work, though, so I think we can recover.
6. Get to know your classmates. Chances are, this will be the most time you spend with your classmates in all of dental school. Take advantage of it! Playing games on the bus and after dinner was one highlights of the trip, and I was surrounded by people I’ve seen every day since starting school.
7. Grab that new Insta pic. Let’s be real — you’re in a foreign country, you’re finally feeling like a dentist and you want to remember everything you’ve done. Don’t be afraid to get some pictures! However…
8. Be respectful of your intentions. “Voluntourism” has become a hot button issue when it comes to mission work. You want to enjoy the country and meet the people, but remember that they’re not props for your profile picture. Treat patients just like you would at school, blocking out personal identifiers and obtaining consent before taking photos.
9. Stay present. You’re there for a short amount of time. My personal opinion? Skip buying the international data plan and focus on being present in a new country. We had so many dentists willing to teach us one-on-one in the clinic, so many grateful patients and so many memories between classmates that I didn’t miss checking my email or social media.
10. Pack your layers. A long-sleeve shirt under your scrubs may be the saving grace you never knew you’d need. Especially when you need to bust out the Cavitron.
~Grace Eichler, South Carolina ’20