It was Sevak Abrahamian's first Spanish lesson ever. He had some useful phrases to learn:
Abra la boca. (Open your mouth). Le duele? (Does it hurt?) El se desmaya! (He's fainting.)
They would prove useful to the University of Maryland dental student during his two-week stint in the Dominican Republic, under the leadership of dentist Dr. Frank Serio, 40, a man who believes that without a bright and toothy smile, your mouth is little more than a hole in your head.
It's that conviction, plus a few others, that drives Dr. Serio into the rural parts of the Dominican Republic every year about this time.
He has returned there each summer since 1983 at the head of a platoon of eager University of Maryland dentists and dental students, all bristling with scalers, pluggers, carvers, portable drills, more toothbrushes than anyone can count and other tools of the dental trade.
Their mission is to repair the damage done by an excess of refined sugar and sweet soft drinks consumed by Dominican peasants, more often than not to allay the persistent hunger that attends their hardscrabble lives.
"It's a combination of having no notion of oral hygiene and poor nutrition," Dr. Serio explains. "Especially with the kids, if they've got a couple of centavos, they go out and buy some penny candy, or Coca-Cola. It's ubiquitous. Anywhere there's a road, Coke is there."
How bad off are they?
"For a lot of them, the decay in front is so bad that when they smile it looks like somebody took a BB gun and shot holes in their teeth," he said.
For some people, of course, a bright smile is a mere cosmetic asset to the personality. Those without one usually don't think it's so minor.
"People want their smiles back," Dr. Serio said. "Especially the younger ones. No matter how poor these Dominicans are, their smiles are as important to them as ours are to us."
The first team of 17 dentists and student dentists departed for the Dominican Republic on June 24. The second team leaves today. Each will spend two weeks traveling in the Ocoa region, hitting a new hamlet every day.
The Dominican Dental Mission Project was initiated by Dr. Serio in 1983, a year after his first solo working tour of the Dominican Republic, fixing teeth all through the south-central mountains. When he returned to his teaching job at the University of Maryland Dental School, he stimulated enough interest among faculty and students to make the project an annual expedition.
The intended patients wait in the village of San Jose de Ocoa and in the rough mountains that surround it.
When Dr. Serio and his teams arrive, these people stream down from the slopes and out of the arroyos by the hundreds.
Before their month's work is done, the dentists will have treated between 2,700 and 2,800 patients.
They will have extracted about 4,000 teeth, filled more than 1,000 cavities, and manufactured and installed about 100 partial plates.
The reason for the great number of extractions, said Baiba Abrams, who served the last two years as a translator, is because most troublesome teeth presented to the dentists are beyond salvaging.
"They just don't have dental care," said Mrs. Abrams, a professor of Spanish at Baltimore's Loyola College.
In addition to her translating duties, Mrs. Abrams was in charge ++ of "the fainters." Fainting is not an uncommon response among the dental patients.
"A lot of them have to walk quite a way [to get to where the dental teams set up]. They walk two, three hours," said Mrs. Abrams. "They don't eat before they come. They have to wait, usually in the hot sun. When they come in they are anxious. All those things taken together, well, they just pass out."
Two years ago, she recalled, 15 patients fell over in one day. It was a record. It happened in the village of Mahoma, northeast of San Jose.
"That place had so many fainters because the person responsible for spreading the word that we were coming spread the word too well and 400 people showed up. We can usually treat only about 120," Mrs. Abrams said.
"It was very hot, and we were high on the mountain. Also, it was not near to any villages so a lot of people did walk a long, long
way. That day they probably treated 140, but any beyond that had to be turned away."
The Dominican project is sponsored by the Catholic MedicaMission Board in New York, but Maryland donors contribute, as do the students and dentists who participate.
The 11 students from Maryland's class of 1995 chosen to go this year helped raise about $8,000 through raffles and silent auctions toward the overall $32,000 cost of the expedition. Other donors include the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, United Methodist Women of Bel Air, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Mount Washington, and Dr. Serio's mother, who gave $2,000 to the enterprise this year, as she has done for the past five.
Most of the project's dentists and students are from the University of Maryland. In recent years some have been enlisted at the University of Mississippi, since Dr. Serio moved down there as chief of periodontics a year ago.
Charles Herbert, a University of Maryland dental student, said he can't wait. He's a 26-year-old senior who wants to be an oral surgeon.
He's heard "it was a super experience," and thinks a lot about those 4,000 extractions and what they mean in terms of dental experience.
Parastoo Golestani, 29, signed up at least in part for the same reason -- the training the trip offers. But she also professed a desire "to do something for people who have nothing."
Nancy O'Neill's motives are also mixed. She is a 32-year-old Californian who has traveled in some of the poorer parts of the world and has seen a lot of people who need all the help they can get. She wants to give some.
But part of her reason for going is a response to a question from one of her patients in the dental school, a poor woman "who asked me if I am going to charge a lot when I graduate because she would really like to come and see me."
Mrs. O'Neill knows she intends to charge fees more or less at the level of her competitors when she's in practice. She's got tuition debts to pay.
"I wanted to do something like this to assuage my guilt," she said. She added, only half jokingly, "When I do community work like this, it makes me feel I can go ahead and charge an arm and a leg and feel better about it."
In selecting volunteers for the project, Dr. Serio said he looks for people "who realize we are an advantaged people here in the United States and who want to give something back." He looks also for those who have been in or have some connection with Third World countries, students who have good academic records, and, "occasionally a student who will benefit from the experience."
Frank Serio describes his father as an old-fashioned "wet-fingered, four-walled, stand-up dentist" who persuaded his son that dentistry was the thing to do in life.
The son took the advice to heart. But unlike his dad, who routinely went to his small office in Queens five days every week, Dr. Serio made dentistry dashing, a little adventuresome, a missionary experience.
Two years when he took the latest flock of dentists and would-be dentists back to San Jose de Ocoa, he was greeted by a large sign outside the village.
A5 It read: "DEAR FRANK AND DENTISTS. WELCOME HOME."