After being moved by stories and images of individuals and families fleeing war and persecution in their home countries, BDA Officer Judith Husband decided to take her dental skills to Greece this summer to provide dentistry to residents in the refugee camps recently established in the north of the country. Here she tells us a bit more about her experience…
How did you first become aware of the need for dentists in the Greek refugee camps? What motivated you to take part?
A tweet popped up on my feed from Dentaid in early April. Dental care was urgently needed with the Red Cross unable to provide much needed dental care to the huge numbers of (mainly Syrian) refugees in camps on the border of Greece and Macedonia.
My good friend and dental nurse Julie Brunswick and I had often talked of undertaking some sort of volunteer work. We thought our special skill set of treating high-need and large-population groups gained through our experience of prison dentistry could offer such programmes real value. I had worked with Kosovan refugees in Liverpool in 1999. Sadly due to work and home commitments the existing programs requiring weeks away were just not achievable. The Dentaid programme involved volunteering over a long weekend, so this was ideal.
What preparations did you undertake?
We finally had confirmation of our dates just a week prior to our departure in July, as there had been a number of political and local issues during June which was our original planned departure. Wesleyan Assurance had kindly offered to cover the travel costs for us both so all that was left was to arrange our transport to Gatwick. Julie and I kept up-to-date with the local political situation and researched as fully as possible online blogs and articles from health workers in the region. Registration with the Greek authorities was relatively straight forward thanks to Health Point Foundation (a healthcare charity working on the ground partnering with Dentaid), dental indemnity was also required. DPL offer free humanitarian cover and this took minutes to arrange on the phone.
We knew conditions would be challenging and that our patients would have endured hugely traumatic experiences.
What type of problems were you treating – and were they what you expected?
We expected extensive dental caries, sepsis and huge unmet need. Although this was generally the case, I was surprised by the excellent standards of oral health and personal motivation shown by many. There was a desire from our patients to learn and ensure they were doing everything possible to keep themselves and their children healthy!
Was there anything else that was unexpected?
Chatting to our patients it became evident they were just like us. Many had good jobs, lovely homes, happy lives and didn’t ever expect this to happen to them. The images in the media help to de-personalise and insulate us from the true horror of the situation.
What difficulties did you encounter and how did you manage them?
The working conditions were very basic. We endeavoured to ensure care was provided using the same ethical standards as in the UK. Our absolute rule was “first do no harm”. Infection control was simple yet robust, we ensured our patients and staff were safe. Treatment was fully consented using interpreters and undertaken with our other rule “patients best interest”. Every extraction, every decision not to treat, every prescription was risk assessed fully against this test.
And what were the highlights?
Quite simply our patients…..
What do you see as the benefits for dentists of volunteering?
We have a unique set of skills that can relieve the most desperate of physical pain. To really do what we have trained for is indescribably rewarding on a personal, selfish level.
On a global level, organisations like the Red Cross, Red Crescent and MSF can provide medical care but dental provision is woeful. It may not be a priority on the first line of an emergency situation but it soon becomes critical when children and adults are suffering pain and acute infection that cannot be treated.
What would your advice be for dentists thinking of volunteering abroad?
Consider carefully your own skill set. It’s important to be very critical of exactly what you can undertake clinically, pushing your personal comfort zone is good, working outside your clinical competency is a risk to your patients.
There are many opportunities to volunteer for the whole dental team, both in the UK and abroad, research and find the right one for you. Ask to be put in contact with individuals who have already undertaken work previously.
Judith Husband sits on the BDA’s Principal Executive Committee and is Chair of the Education, Ethics and the Dental Team Working Group. She has experience of working in general practice and in prison dentistry.
For those interested in following in Judith’s footsteps Dentaid are regularly looking for volunteers – the next available dates for Greece are 17-21 October. Email email@example.com for an application form or to find out more. See also Oral health promotion for the homeless: my volunteering journey on BDA Connect for further insight into volunteering in the UK.