Dr Amy Nguyen
Dentist, Vietnam Field Trip 2012
SAVING THE WORLD, ONE TOOTH AT A TIME
A four year old boy runs into the dental surgery and tugs at my white VVPA polo shirt. I turn to see his bright, cheeky grin housing a dental nightmare: black teeth rotten down to the core. My heart breaks. This is not only a reflection of poor oral hygiene or the boy’s cravings for lollies, but an indication of the poor education, limited access to dental care, and the extreme poverty these families live in.
This boy was particularly memorable. This was not only because he was an entertaining nuisance to the whole dental team by jumping queues, leaping onto chairs, and demanding constant attention to amuse himself. It wasn’t even because he had to be seen by five of our dentists before he agreed to sit still in the dental chair. He was memorable to me because he was only four years old and was already exposed to the realities and cruelties of his impoverished society. Stacked in his right hand was a pile of lottery tickets and between his mischievous rants I would see him approach potential buyers with a desperate plea. Three days in a row I saw him barefoot. Three days in a row he wore the same clothes (although I wore the same clothes too, so he probably thought it was quite normal). Three days in a row he had the same dirt smear across his right cheek (which I finally cleaned off on the third day).
VVPA celebrates its 10th birthday this year. The dental team was established last year. There were a few teething problems (pun intended) as expected but through teamwork, we pulled through accomplishing more than we could have ever imagined. We treated both children and adults, giving greatest priority to the young ones and the elderly. Our primary aim was to relieve pain but our astonishing productivity allowed us to treat more than one tooth per person if it was within the same region of the mouth. Our patients’ gratitude was overwhelming. Together with the witty and hilarious Mr Chuong, I had the pleasure of showing the children in the waiting room how to brush their teeth. Mr Chuong decided it was not effective enough to just TELL them how to brush, but FOR ME (not him) to demonstrate by brushing my own teeth. Needless to say, I had squeaky clean teeth by the end of the trip and I’m sure I’ll be seeing one of my VVPA dental colleagues soon for sensitivity resulting from the over-brushing.
All credit goes to the VVPA committee and organisers. The trip ran smoothly and the whole experience was more than comfortable. We were very spoilt indeed. As charities go, our working conditions were more than generous. We had sundeck chairs as dental chairs for our patients, fans were on all day, and I was fed mini bananas by my team whilst extracting teeth. What really hits home though is how spoilt we really are on a daily basis.
"Could you ever imagine camping outside of a hospital overnight after travelling for days, just so that your child could see a dentist?"
Despite the harsh reality of his difficult world which I could never completely comprehend, he had a vibrant, infectious spirit that won the hearts of our dental team. The memory of his smile is so vivid it too brings a smile to my face as I reminisce and write about him.
Dentistry was the core foundation of our trip. It was the reason we dropped everything at home, came together to volunteer our time, money and services to those less fortunate than ourselves.
"Little did I know we would be rewarded in so many ways. The experiences gained and the friendships formed are invaluable and will be everlasting."
To participate in such a heart-wrenching cause that we are all so passionate about brought us so close together in a very short amount of time. This was especially evident on our six hour bus ride to Bac Lieu which instantly revealed the mixture of talent as we entertained each other with serenades, comedy skits and competitive games. I’ve never laughed so hard and for so long: “Bus! Ben tay phai! Ben tay trai! Bra! Bikini! Bang ve sinh!”
How would you feel standing in a crowded, humid waiting room with the number 432 written on your arm, having several teeth in pain but knowing you can only be treated for one? In the grand scheme of things, we have only brushed the surface of what these people need. But for every patient who had an infected tooth extracted, or had a filling to try and save a tooth, and for every patient’s hand we held and comforted, I know we did a lot for their comfort and quality of life ... and that makes our trip worthwhile.
On behalf of the beautiful administration staff, Saigon dental team, and dentists, thank you VVPA for taking us through a wonderfully inspiring journey.
"We have come back to Australia with fuller hearts (and stomachs), glorious memories and new familiar faces."
I look forward to returning to Vietnam with VVPA, saving the world one tooth at a time!
The hopeless (yet improving) Vietnamese speaker.