Dr. Lawrence Reimer got hooked on “jungle dentistry” in 1989 in the Honduras, as part of his final lab during his last six months of dental school. Twenty-two years later, he has made a total of 15 trips to developing countries and saved hundreds of lives by taking jungle dentistry to some of the world’s remotest areas.
Friday, Reimer and local broadcaster Art Wallman will be honoured at the inaugural 2011 Scotiabank Humanitarian Awards for Lifetime Achievement presented at the Emergency Services Gala hosted by the Dr. Noble Irwin Regional Healthcare Foundation.
“I get a lot of glory for this, but behind me is a very supportive wife, Cindy. When we talk about doing these projects, I never did it in terms of what is going to happen on Friday. I did it because I have a very understanding wife and family,” Dr. Reimer said. “I have young children and having the support of my wife, when that money could have been spent in other ways, and allowing me to use that to support what I believed to be important to me, that is a critical thing.
“I’m singled out on Friday, but equivalent to what I do over there is the person I leave behind who’s supportive financially and in terms of what we’re doing over there. I want to make sure that everybody gets some credit.”
Reimer has taken jungle dentistry to the Honduras 10 times, to Africa twice, Jamaica once, the Dominican Republic once and China once in November 2010. He has developed connections over the years with various groups who can facilitate his trips to nearly anywhere, limited only by his budget and the time available to travel.
“Africa intrigues me,” Reimer reflected. “I like the Star Trek route, where you go where nobody’s ever gone before. And remote. I don’t like working in cities. I like working out in the villages. It’s safer, quieter, the people are more appreciative.”
Each of his three children and his wife have accompanied him on dental trips.
“I think it’s been life-changing for them. I want them to see what I do because they grew up with me doing this. I thought it was critical for them to see that. I think they understand me, and they understand what I do now. None of them are interested in being dentists, but they have a bigger appreciation for what they have.”
The complex process of planning a trip requires six to 12 months, with much of that time spent choosing people for the team.
“Part of my objective is to give enthusiastic people a chance to go. I try to get two ends of the spectrum. Exposing people from here so they can experience that culture, and at the same time trying to help those down there.
“The other criteria are personal and health safety for the group. There are always women involved, so foreign culture has an impact on the perception of women assisting with the practice. Disease prevention is also high priority because these countries have many more disease opportunities than we typically see in North America, such as Malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, yellow fever and Dengue fever. Participants risk exposure to parasites, spiders, snakes and insects while working in 37° C temperatures and unsanitary conditions.”
The team may consist of other professionals like dental assistants, dental hygienists, nurses and pharmacists, but just as frequently non-medical people are accepted as long as they can finance their expenses.
“Most of the jobs for non-medical people would be sterilizing instruments. That’s probably one of the hardest jobs there is washing the dirty instruments, rinsing them, drying them. There’s not always a dental assistant on the trip so I basically just train them on site. Some of my best assistants have been the ones I just trained on the spot. They have a desire to be there.”
Logistical planning is almost as complex. With customs and weight restrictions, equipment and medical supplies must be shipped several months in advance of the team’s arrival.
“I have to supply my own materials, medications, anesthetic, so we have to take all that. So it’s out of pocket, for me and for [the team]. You pay ... to work for free, and you have to have that desire to be there, to get along with others, to be flexible.”
The most profound experience he had occurred in Africa.
“I worked all day, eight hours straight, and we were just about ready to leave and there was a quiet, little black lady who wasn’t pushy or assertive like often there are in crowds. She was just sitting there, the last one left. Her face was huge on one side. It turns out she had an infection and for five years she had slept sitting up because she couldn’t lie down.
“I went over there and tried to get this tooth out, and I knew I was just going to have to go for it because I could feel her jaw moving around. When I pulled it out I brought a huge chunk of rotten jawbone with these teeth in it. It was scary, because it could have broken her jaw or pulled a nerve out, and just the relief she must have had, and we got the bleeding stopped and sutured her up. It was probably one of the worst cases I’ve seen.
“To get one tooth extracted is the equivalent of one month’s wages or more. So if they have three teeth removed, it’s like a quarter of a year’s salary. The dentist down there would charge them $20 a tooth, so you can’t spend one third of your annual income to have a bad tooth taken out. That puts it in perspective. If they get six teeth taken out, it’s like half a year’s wages. That’s why they’re willing to stand in line for a whole day.”
As routine as tooth extractions have become, Reimer still thinks of them as a life-saving procedure. “We’re not just taking out a tooth that hurts, but literally saving someone’s life.”
@Tagline:<t-4.5f$>Read more about Dr.Reimer’s experiences on swbooster.com
The most unusual experience he’s had as a jungle dentist didn’t involve teeth. Because medical people are considered as “all-knowing”, he was approached by the mother of a young child and asked to look at the child’s ear, which was red and swollen.
“I got my tweezers and I don’t know how this happened, but I stuck it in the kid’s ear ... pulled my tweezers out, and there was a coffee bean I’d pulled out of this kid’s ear.
“If we hadn’t been there, the kid would have grown up deaf in that one ear because no one else would have got it. [These people] have no access to medical care. It’s a simple story, but for me that was profound. Being a dentist and pulling a coffee bean out of a kid’s ear.”
He has seen the greatest scope of challenges in Africa, not exclusively dental but also general health concerns that compound dental issues, such as poor nutrition and disease. An example was a woman who managed to walk from her home to the jungle clinic despite having a parasitic overload and stage four malaria in addition to her abscessed teeth. Medicine was available but she had no way to pay for it.
“I asked if I could pay for her medicine,” Reimer said, “and the doctor said, sure, if you want to. So I asked how much it would be to give her the anti-malarials and the medicines for the parasites. He scribbled on a piece of paper and it came out to $10. Ten dollars to save her life.”
“That’s another story I use quite often in my talks: saving a life for the cost of a submarine sandwich. There’s always one story like that every trip.”
As Reimer approaches retirement, he envisions more of a facilitative role in future jungle dentistry efforts, but has wonderful memories and hundreds of photos.
“I always say you get back more than you deserve on these trips. There’s that healing, that peace that comes to you. That’s one reason why I kept going again and again, because I always felt good for trying. For years I didn’t think that really made a difference to me, but it made me feel better.”
“It’s outside the financial realm, and I think that’s the hardest thing to get people to understand. In terms of giving, no matter what you give, you’re always going to get more than that back.”