Group Mission to Colombia—An Outstanding Experience for Dental Students

In April 2012, then DMD 2012 candidates Melissa Milligan and Kathryn Hunter travelled to South America, where they joined students and dentists from the University of Southern California Faculty of Dentistry. The USC faculty offers a volunteer dental program in collaboration with Ayuda Inc., a not-for-profit organization focused on providing free dental care to underserved communities. This was the second year that the Sinclair Travel Fellowship Program supported the UBC Dentistry fourth-year travel elective.

Kathryn Hunter DMD 2012 and Melissa Milligan DMD 2012

Kathryn Hunter DMD 2012 and Melissa Milligan DMD 2012

The team travelled to Cartagena, Colombia, where they treated 845 patients in a local barrio of 13,000 people. The high level of organization and teamwork, and the special focus on young patients and their dental problems, were particularly meaningful for the two UBC students.

“After screening 50 children under the age of five in one morning, you start understanding what to look for, what’s normal, what’s not,” says Kathryn, who shared that during her training at UBC she was uncomfortable with having a young child cry in the chair. “It just wasn’t something that I thought was a part of dentistry, and my first instinct was to have someone else take over,” she says, and noted that at the UBC clinic child patients are usually age five and older.

For four hours on one day in Cartagena, Kathryn gave children needles to anaesthetize them before starting their dental treatment. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many crying children. At first I thought they’d all hate me.” However, Kathryn learned a valuable lesson that day: even when kids are crying, they still need help to clear their mouths of disease, and in the end, no matter how much they dislike it at the time, they are grateful. Her most touching moment, among many hugs, kisses and articulations of gracias, was a huge smile and a wave from a boy she was convinced hated her because he had screamed during his treatment. “I was ecstatic!” she recalls.

“The triage system developed by the group allowed for patients to be seen in a timely and orderly manner,” says Melissa. She and Kathryn worked triage on their last day, and Melissa credits this system for their efficiency. Another highlight for her was working with radiology and learning how to use the NOMAD handheld, portable X-ray machine. Melissa also gained more experience with atraumatic restorative treatment (ART) and extractions. “Working with the Ayuda team was an outstanding experience. Everyone had a key role to play and felt supported by their colleagues. This meant we all had the opportunity to enhance and expand our dental skills and comfort zones in the clinic.”

For Melissa, a passion for combining humanitarian acts and travel has been percolating throughout dental school. Her experience in Colombia could be just the tip of the iceberg—she hopes to work with the Ayuda group again. She is excited, she says, by how such a large group of people could organize themselves into an efficient, temporary dental clinic to support a community in need.

Treatment Performed

Amalgam restorations 43
Cleaning (scaling and root planning) 230
Composite restorations 271
Endodontic (root canal) treatments 9
Extractions 148
Fluoride treatments 403
Oral health instruction 392
Pulpotomies 20
Sealants 190
Stainless steel crowns 25
Total number of children treated 702
Total number of adults treated 143
Total number of procedures 564


April 13 Friday Travel to Los Angeles; meet Dr. Harris Done (founder of Ayuda).
April 14 Saturday Meet Ayuda group at LAX for red-eye flight to Cartegena, Colombia. Check-in at hotel.
April 15 Sunday Free day.
April 16 Monday Set-up at Granitos de Paz clinic. Work day partnering with USC students. Evening on your own.
April 17 Tuesday Work at clinic. Tour of local neighbourhood and learned about the Fundacion Granitos de Paz which aims to reduce poverty and improve wellness in the community.
April 18 Wednesday Work at clinic. Evening on your own.
April 19 Thursday Work at clinic. Experienced an evening performance by a local children’s dance group through the foundation.
April 20 Friday Group visit to the local dental university for tour and case/research presentations with Ayuda group and Colombian dental students.
April 21 Saturday Final awards banquet and slide show.
April 22 Sunday Free day.
April 23 Monday Departure to Los Angeles via Panama City and arrive in Vancouver.

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