iona McDonnell (BDS Ncl) writes about her voluntary dentistry in the Cook Islands which she discovered was an extremely worthwhile experience.
She found the children were especially willing and co-operative in having their teeth checked.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands in the South Pacific – a world away from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom. I was lucky enough to visit and work abroad as dentist volunteer in this fantastic place in 2010. In total we were ten dentists who travelled from the UK and made the 24-hour journey across the world to volunteer at the local dental clinic and schools across the island.
Landing at 6am on Monday morning, we were given the first day off to recuperate and get our bearings around the 32km island. As day-two began the Chief Dental Officer of the Cook Islands, George, greeted us at the local and only dental clinic on the island. The clinic compromised four chairs in an open room - a similar set-up to the UK dental hospitals! Two dentists, one doubling up as a technician, worked regularly at the clinic; but to look after the entire Cook Islands population, the majority of whom live on Rarotonga, George relies heavily on outside assistance. Volunteers and their generous donations have helped build the clinic over a number of years; we tried to improve on this by supplying gloves, masks, local anaesthetic, dental materials and oral hygiene aids.
While my colleagues worked at the clinic, I was posted to a local primary school on the island – Ati tu. Probably the best 'commute' I have experienced, the journey to the school took only ten minutes by moped – the most population form of transport on the island.
I worked for two weeks at the primary school, along with the school nurse. Within this time it was our duty to see and treat every single child in the school and nursery. The school had its own dedicated dental chair. Treatments mainly compromised of: check-ups, oral hygiene advice, fillings and extractions. Unlike in the United Kingdom, caries rates in the Cook Islands are on the increase; primarily due to high-sugar processed foods being imported from the mainland therefore fillings and extractions were numerous. Oral hygiene instruction also played a big part in my visit, the children bring their own toothbrushes to school to brush their teeth every lunchtime – a local government initiative, therefore I was able to help and advise the children on how to brush properly; the tell-show-do method of teaching was particularly useful in this case.
One of the most insightful aspects of my visit was spending time with the children and realising how fearless they are; visiting the school dentist was very exciting to them and the children were desperate to get their teeth looked at! This also meant that use of local anaesthetic was rare, the children sat still and did not even flinch – something I have never experienced before. Initially I did feel uncomfortable not anaesthetising them, especially for an extraction, however after two or three children returned with large, swollen and infected lips, it was more sensible to treat them without anaesthetic; they had not experienced anything like this before and did not fully understand what the feeling of being anesthetised was therefore their curiosity often got the better of them!
As my work came to an end, the school held a party to say ‘thank you’. I was able to try all the local island delicacies that the Mothers brought in with them: fresh coconut, paw-paw (or papaya as we know it) and, of course, fried chicken! It was a very emotional good bye as I left the school for the final time; I had got to know some of the children quite well, as some of them liked to get their teeth checked every day!
My work as a dentist volunteer in the Cook Islands was something I will never forget, it was by far the most exciting and fulfilling experience I have ever had and would recommend it to everyone; it's also a bonus when you can finish work, cross the road and go scuba diving in the beautiful coral reefs of the South Pacific!