Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, A Dental Student in Uganda
It is important that we all learn from one another's experiences! It is the best way to get to know someone and grow better empathy and understanding. We love sharing stories from our brigades in Africa. Through pictures and words, our first hand accounts can be more meaningful. Take a look at a piece written by Irina, a dental school student volunteer from the University of Toronto School of Dentistry!
"It seems just yesterday I was diligently researching Bridge to Health and fervently writing my application essay, and then, sitting in front of the computer, an invitation was glaring at me. “I’m going to Uganda!!” I told anyone who would listen.
If you’ve never been to Africa before, there’s probably an image in your mind of what it’s like. After settling down from my celebratory dance, thoughts began to fly through my head. I imagined every possible scenario that might occur. Then reverse. Stop. Another scenario – nearly the same, but with slight variations. Excitement, nerves, worries, more excitement, ran through my mind on hyperloop until departure day. The weeks flew by.
Suddenly, we’ve arrived. As the bus doors slid open, we were enveloped by bright smiles and big bear hugs, music playing; we took our first steps on KIHEFO soil, and, instantly, every worry melted away. KIHEFO, the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation, is BTH’s Ugandan not-for-profit partner in rural Kabale, Uganda. Together, BTH and KIHEFO organize outreach clinics to nearby underserved villages to provide comprehensive medical and dental care. To ensure program sustainability, these clinics are coupled with education and training of local healthcare providers to maintain healthcare efforts long-term, research, and initiatives to build healthcare infrastructure (such as maternal health and cervical cancer screening clinics). KIHEFO worked tirelessly to accommodate us; they were our anchor in Uganda.
Clinic days were an enigma – a puzzle of distinct, independent healthcare professionals visiting an unfamiliar environment. The first few days, the puzzle pieces didn’t perfectly fit. Fortunately, through our common value of humanitarianism, and our common goal of universal healthcare, we learned to come together. We listened to each other, adjusted, and emerged stronger than ever. As a team, we were a bigger, better picture than the sum of its individual pieces.
We had a flow. KIHEFO set up clinic tents in the morning at a rural primary school. Then the BTH team arrived and unloaded our supplies. We did the banana dance, educated, screened, and fluoridated 400-500 kids. Simultaneously, medical taught educational lectures for local clinical officers, dental assembled patients for same-day dentures and restorative/hygiene work, nursing triaged patients and pharmacy filled prescriptions. All patients were sent to triage, who sent them to our medical, musculoskeletal and/or dental team. After their treatment, patients were sent to pharmacy.
The flow was perfect - no issues went unattended. When a little boy came in with a large cheek abscess and a high fever, crying of a painful tooth, we collaborated with medical to send him to the KIHEFO clinic for antibiotics, IV sedation, and subsequent dental care. The flow was saving lives. This organic collaboration was better than any interprofessional event you could attempt to establish at home. It’s one of the unique features of BTH that blew me away – simple, all-encompassing care.
Then there’s the local officers, both medical and dental. Throughout our clinic days, and even into the evenings, we were teaching and learning from each other. Chetna and Dr. Barzilay provided lectures, dentists offered technical tips in the field, and we worked side by side, leaning on each other for support. Sustainability is at the core of this program. We aren’t there year-round to provide care for the communities, but these resilient, hard-working, compassionate officers are; they are committed to continuing quality care in our absence.
The immense emotions you feel are inexplicable. As you screen and fluoridate 500 kids, tiny mouths open, overflowing with saliva, you repeat, in broken ruchiga, “ruma” “close” “ruma,” and your heart grows a little. As you finally deliver a denture to a woman waiting all day in the piping hot sun, who sheds a tear or dances with joy to thank you, your heart grows a little more. As you work together with officers and dentists of different walks of life, 5 heads leaning over one particularly retentive tooth refusing to come out, your heart grows even more. It swells, full of compassion - for those living in conditions without the basic care of home; for those tiny kids who come alone and trust you wholly; for everyone around you, giving a piece of their time and heart to be here. It’s a feeling of gratitude and compassion and empathy for those you hadn’t known at all 2 weeks ago.
And suddenly, we’re back on Canadian soil, and we’re back in clinics. But now, everything is a little different. I’m shouting “Agandi” to Jaclyn, my dental student companion. I’m listening to my patients more, wanting to walk a mile in their shoes. I’m in conversation with colleagues and instructors, trying to find new perspectives on treatments. I’m smiling ear to ear. And I’m counting the days, only 356…355…354…more until we’re back in Kabale.
Ps. If you’re wondering about the banana dance, here’s a link that may clear things up –