Mgahinga Dental Clinic: Like Pulling Teeth

Recently some certain members of Mount Gahinga community did something they have never done before, they went to the dentist. Led by the indomitable Dr. Patrick Henrie and the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT), a team of 1 dentist, 2 dental hygienists and 2 helpers from California ran a free dental clinic for the community around Mt Gahinga Lodge.

Having recently completed a similar exercise for the Kolunga Village Foundation on Rushiga island in Kenya, the 5-strong team expected to see around 60-70 patients over the course of 2 days. They were, of course, way off the mark. Given we would be using anaesthetic rather than the leather restrains customary to rural Ugandan dentists I was expecting a high uptake amongst the community. With this in mind I had instructed the local health centre to start issuing tickets and registering patients a week and a half earlier, unfortunately when I checked on ticket registrations the day before the clinic, only 20 out of a total of 70 had been issued. Not a good start, however given that people here are as likely to plan ahead as Elvis is to score a century at Lord’s opening the batting for England in next year’s Ashes, it seemed possible people would turn up on the day. So, in words of Kevin Costner, I thought “if you build it, they will come” and ploughed ahead.

The next day arrived and the team set up shop in the clinic, using a dazzling and slightly sinister array of prodders, tissue separators, pliers and needles that would not look out of place in a North Korean interrogation chamber, they began to pull and clean teeth (not in that order). Kevin Costner was, of course, correct and once word got out we were giving away free tooth brushes the people came. About 1 hour into the first day the dental work was interrupted by the arrival of an emergency patient, the man had fallen off a roof putting a very large gash in his arm and having heard there was a Mzungu doctor in town came to get stitched up. Dr. Henrie, rather than point out they had the wrong kind of doctor, duly obliged the man and took a break from pulling teeth to sew up the offending gash, insisting it was all in a day’s work.

On day 2 the pace continued unabated and despite having only issued 9 tickets for this day, we were welcomed by a queue of about 20 people at around 8am. This was pleasing for 2 reasons: firstly it meant the team would not be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for patients; and secondly that the rampant teeth pulling of day one had not put the people off! Interestingly there were 2 significant differences between the teeth of the people of Gahinga and Rushiga Island: firstly the people of Gahinga had slightly less decay, most likely due to the colder climate here making sugar cane less readily available and secondly the teeth themselves were much easier to pull. Apparently, the people of Rushiga Island have roots that are up to 20% longer than normal, making pulling very hard, the upshot of this being that the dentist dramatically underestimated the number of patients he could see in a day, so despite only issuing 20 tickets in advance and expecting to see around 60 in total, we managed to see a total of 92 patients (the youngest being 6 and the oldest 86) and pull 100 teeth! Not bad for 2 days’ work!

Will, Uganda – Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust