Ecuadent works to expand care in Ecuador after February mission

The waiting room of Ecuadent's dental clinic is shown through the doors on the building during the foundation's February mission in Salinas, Ecuador.
The waiting room of Ecuadent's dental clinic is shown through the doors on the building during the foundation's February mission in Salinas, Ecuador. (Samantha Madison/Staff Photo , Carroll County Times)

SALINAS, ECUADOR - While planning for the next Ecuadent Foundation dental and medical mission has already begun, volunteers are still processing their experiences from February's trip.

First-time volunteer Dale Horn, of Phoenix, said the trip was one of the most valuable experiences he has ever had.

"I've done a lot of charitable work and I have never seen such a tremendous, direct application of good where the benefits are immediate," he said. "To be on the ground and experiencing that is so different from writing a check or attending a fundraiser. That's where I think the real value came out of this."

The Ecuadent Foundation is a Maryland-based nonprofit that provides free medical and dental care to impoverished children throughout Ecuador, according to the organization's website. Currently the foundation send groups on a mission in the fall as well as the winter.

Founder Tammy Fesche, of Lutherville, is looking to continue improving the services the group provides as her foundation expands and becomes more integrated with the country's navy.

"I think we have taken giant steps," Fesche said at the end of this year's mission. "I think the navy really understands what Ecuadent does now, there are new officers that we are working with and I think now it will be much easier for us. ... I think it's going to be even better."

A blur of days

Volunteers with the dental team left the U.S. on Feb. 14 and spent the majority of the day traveling to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where they then spent the night in a hotel. The group was greeted by the navy and Fesche the next morning before boarding a bus to Salinas, where the clinic would be set up for the duration of the trip.

After a nearly two-hour bus trip, stopping only at a grocery store for food and water supplies, the group made it to the navy base, where the clinic and accommodations were located. Everyone was given a few minutes to get things situated in their rooms, and then it was off to set up the clinic.

The rest of the day was spent unpacking a mass of boxes into a makeshift dental clinic where children would be seen for the next few days.

The following days were a blur of patient after patient, some with fine teeth and others with them rotting out of the child's head. The triage area saw all 502 patients over the five-day span the clinic was open. Bob Scott, Becki Maurio and Dale Horn were primarily in charge of triage, funneling children from the main waiting area to another waiting area, where the dentists and hygienists would treat each one.

Maurio, a translator from Westminster, said it was exciting to be a part of a group with the ability to get the job done no matter what.

"I'm still so impressed with the focus." Maurio said. "I've said to a number of people since I got back, it didn't matter that it was hot, it didn't matter that something broke down or didn't work the way we thought it would, people were just extremely focused on the mission and why we were there. And that we saw over 500 kids in five days is almost unbelievable. And yet, I was there, I saw it."

The children were so patient while they waited with no iPod or video games to entertain them. When they were let inside, the kids knew they would be sitting for a long time, but Ecuadent had a way to keep them busy, at least at some points during the day. Some officers with the navy helped out by blowing bubbles with the children and even holding a dance competition to PSY's "Gangnam Style" for a new toothbrush. No worries, every child eventually received at least one toothbrush, even if they didn't dance to the widely popular tune.

On the final day, the children the group could not get to were given toothpaste, toothbrushes, snacks and water to take home; leaving no child in sight without something in hand.


A serious case

Every year there is a case where the volunteers wish they could do more for the patient. This year, that case was one of a woman from a fishing village with three children. One of the children had a large growth in his throat, which the team thought could possibly be cancer, Fesche said, and could end up killing him if left untreated.

Fesche said they have always tried to go above and beyond fixing the children's teeth, trying to help everyone that comes through the doors. Since the missions are split up into medical and dental portions, the dental team does not have a surgeon that could operate on a child that may come in during the dental mission with an ailment more severe than what the team is equipped to handle.

Since the team could not help the child with the growth, Fesche, as well as one of the volunteers, decided they were going to do something to help the family, and to maybe be able to give the boy a chance. Fesche said she arranged to have an Ecuadorian specialist see the child in another city on the group's final day, and one of the volunteers gave the family money to help cover the cost of the trip.

"We're going to take [the child] to [a hospital that] specializes in ears, nose and throat," Fesche said. "And hopefully we are going to save a life."

She said that is what the foundation is all about. She feels like there is always more Ecuadent could do, but doesn't have the ability to fix everyone that comes through the door, yet.

"I feel that this is not enough," Fesche said. "I wish there was a doctor with us that we could operate on the child. I wish that we could have a magic wand and a surgeon would appear and operate on the child and the child's going to be OK."

Looking to the future

Francisco Almeida, commander of the naval academy, has been working with Ecuadent for the past two years. His role, with the help of the navy, is to help take care of the logistics, making sure the navy finds children and that the foundation has a clinic to work in when they get there. The navy has posts around the coast, and when they find out Ecuadent is coming, information about the mission is passed to villages through those bases by word of mouth, newspaper and radio.

Almeida said the navy and Ecuadent have an agreement, and the result is that they help the people of his country.

"I admire the work that the foundation does very much," Almeida said through a translator. "I admire the quality of people that Ecuadent has, they give themselves, volunteer their time to come and see strangers. I find it very interesting and important the way the volunteers give their time."

Ecuadent started working with the army of Ecuador when it was first founded. After a few years, Fesche said she realized that the navy had more of a reach, and they could get more patients and help more people by collaborating with the navy. Since then, the group has worked with the navy, and Fesche said she hopes that soon they will be able to work even more closely with them.

"The ultimate goal is for the navy of Ecuador to work together [with Ecuadent] and expand to continue helping the people," Fesche said. "I could send volunteers to Ecuador to work with the navy, probably all around the year."

As for this year's trip, Fesche said she thinks it went pretty smoothly.

"I think we had an incredible mission," Fesche said. "I think the personnel I have are remarkable. I think their soul and heart are in treating the patients."