Terrible winds and harsh rain battered Puerto Rico in September 2017 as Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, leaving destruction in its path. Thousands of residents were affected as homes and businesses were destroyed, with many left without access to food, drinkable water or electricity for months at a time. Puerto Rico also faced a health care collapse. With the lack of medical supplies and access to suitable working conditions, many providers could not offer their services.
Dr. Zacharias Kalarickal, a general dentist in Florida, quickly offered his expertise and assistance in the matter. While studying at Case Western Reserve University, he got involved with ASDA. Through the organization, he met Dr. Liliam Ortiz Galarza and Dr. Scott Szotko. An instant connection formed and led to friendships that have persisted far beyond their dental school days.
“The relationships we forge during dental school as leaders of ASDA are so powerful,” Dr. Kalarickal says. “They have led to meaningful impacts throughout our careers as dentists [even] 20 years later.”
Together the trio departed on a humanitarian relief effort to provide free dental care in clinics on remote parts of the island. Joined by a team of 24 dentists and over 40 volunteers from the United States and Puerto Rico, their effort was made possible by a non-profit organization called Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico, or Missionary Dentists of Puerto Rico, founded by Dr. Ortiz Galarza.
“Humanitarian efforts are part of who we are as a caring profession. It is rewarding to practice dentistry, but uniquely special to take care of patients who are unable to have the opportunity to get that kind of care,” Dr. Kalarickal says.
The team found themselves in Culebra and Vieques, small islands off the eastern coast of the mainland. Frustration and anguish were a shared feeling among the inhabitants, who felt as if the government and the rest of the world had forgotten about them in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The community did not have proper access to dental care, but fortunately these clinics arrived to address the concerns of the community. Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico also provided basic dental education to school children in Culebra.
“The severity of the cases was quite remarkable. We did everything from teeth cleanings to periodontal surgeries. By coming together, we were able to make a positive impact,” Dr. Kalarickal says.
He credits his passion for helping others through the friendships and connections he formed in ASDA. The shared compassion to help others and tackle real-world issues drives these three doctors to address the needs pf others around them. Dr. Kalarickal recommends that dental students find something they care about and empower people to make a difference in their communities. In addition to mission trips, Dr. Kalarickal actively helps out with Florida Mission of Mercy as well as with Stars, Stripes and Smiles, an event geared towards serving veterans.
“We are fortunate to [be part of our] profession and to be able to provide an impact in this world,” Dr. Kalarickal says. “But we can amplify that impact when we collaborate with our friends from college and ASDA. Such an experience is personally fulfilling and rewarding.”
Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico has a goal to provide at least two clinics a year in Vieques. They will continue their commitment with a mission trip this April.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from the natural disaster they faced almost three years ago. The friendships we form in ASDA can – and do – bring us together so we can make a bigger impact in the communities that have a need for the service we bring to our patients.
~Ashley Mathew, Texas-Houston ’23