Debra Cook likes people. In fact she’s been working with people for 35 years as a dental hygienist. Her work has been fulfilling she says, but somehow she wanted more. So she decided that one day she’d serve a dental humanitarian mission.
That day arrived sooner than she thought it would.
Cook works a few days a week for both Dr. Doug Ogden in Roosevelt and Dr. Jason Monfredi in Vernal. That adds up to a lot of scraping, buffing and chatting. Cook thrives on it.
Then one day while looking through the appointment book at Ogden’s office she noticed the words, “Africa Trip.” Curious she asked Ogden about the notation. He explained that it was a humanitarian trip that had fallen through. When Cook showed interest, Ogden told her that while his trip hadn’t panned out, he knew of a Dr. Drew Cahoon who was taking a group in January.
“I didn’t know how receptive she’d be to the idea, but she just snapped it up,” Ogden said. “She wanted to be involved.”
Cook contacted Cahoon, a Canadian dentist. “As soon as I spoke with him, I immediately trusted him,” she said. “It felt right.”
After serving in the Canadian military, Cahoon had entered private practice and was invited to join the Rotary Club in his area. There he was introduced to serving in humanitarian endeavors and after being in head-on car crash that required months of recovery, decided to redirect his life to serve others.
Cahoon linked up with the Academy of LDS Dentists and began what he calls the “Uganda Project,” where dentists, hygienists, and medical professionals teach at the Mulago Dental School, which is part of the Makerere University.
Mulago is the only dental school in Uganda. But teaching wouldn’t have been possible if Cahoon wouldn’t have first raised money to refurbish the structure and then outfit the school with dental equipment and instruments.
The school opened in August 2007 through generous donations from Rotary International, the Canadian government, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Academy of LDS Dentists. Now Cahoon’s humanitarian endeavors have reached Rwanda, where dentistry is taught at the Kigali Health Institute.
Cook was excited to be part of the effort when she began her trip to Africa on Jan. 20. She felt she was doing service, but quickly found she benefited more than gave.
“It is truly a life changing experience when you connect one-on-one with people, learn of their culture, language, religion, and personal life dreams,” she said.
Preparation for the trip included immunization against yellow fever, malaria and typhoid. Cook sorted through light cotton scrubs and dresses, leaving below zero temperatures in the Uintah Basin for a then 80-degree tropical climate.
The most intensive preparation came when she, with the other hygienists, were asked to prepare teaching curriculum before the trip began. They would also be delivering donated hygienist tools to the students, in prepared kits.
Once in Africa, the hygienists taught a non-surgical periodontal therapy. They instructed in tooth anatomy, periodontal disease and detection instrument selections, proper adaptation and sharpening, proper patient and hygienist positioning, charting, polishing, and patient education.
“Our mornings were filled with lecturing, our afternoons were spent in a clinical setting so the students could apply the information they received in class,” Cook said.
The days were long, sometimes stretching into 12 hours. But, the need in Uganda for dental care is great. Cook said there is one dentist for every 300,000 people in a country where 29 million live in an area slightly larger than the state of Utah.
With such need, dental hygienists, or public health dental officers, are trained to administer local anesthesia, extract teeth, and remove decay and insert fillings with hand tools, however, they lack the knowledge of tooth cleaning.
Periodontal disease is rampant, Cook said. It is caused when plaque under the gum line builds and hardens and acids from the bacteria dissolve the bone. Unfortunately junk food and soda pop is part of the diet in Africa. The practice of flossing and brushing is not.
“The students were smart, well trained and very respectful,” Cook said. “They speak quietly, even in groups.”
And their patients? Cook said they were so grateful. After she and her students worked on one man he stood and said, “My teeth are like brand new. I am a new man!”
“That’s how they are,” Cook said. “No matter what you do, they are so appreciative.”
Upon graduation from the course the students were awarded a set of instruments, special recognition gifts such as a headlamp or set of scrubs and a completion certificate.
Rwanda is a much smaller country in contrast to Uganda. It is about the size of Maryland, but is heavily populated with 11 million people within it’s borders. While at the Kigali Health Institute, school was interrupted at 10:30 a.m. each day for tea, Cook said. It was unclear, she said, whether tea time was part of the every-day routine, or a gracious offering during the week of instruction.
While in Rwanda, the humanitarian group learned about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They visited the Genocide Memorial Center and the Hôtel des Mille Collines, where hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 refugees from the violence. Rusesabagina’s efforts were popularized in the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
Ogden said Cook came back with “a greater love for mankind.”
“It was certainly an adventure, but she loved the people,” he said. “They were just so warm and friendly toward her.”
Cook said it was “wonderful” to share her training with others so that they might better their own lives and the lives of the people they serve.
“It’s like the saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’” she said.
Cook figured after one humanitarian trip she’d be content to stay at home. Not so. She’s already thinking about her next one.