Training missionaries in the tropical downpours of Chiang Mai, Thailand . . . Setting up a MASH unit in rainforests . . . Propping a patient on bags of corn in the Ecuadoran mountains to perform dental care illuminated by a flashlight . . . Inhaling the aroma of lemon trees from the balcony of a 19th-century villa in Florence, Italy . . . Staring down at the Chinese city of Shanghai through the glass floor of the Oriental Pearl, some 200 feet above ground . . .
These were among the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of several College of Dental Medicine students and faculty over the past few months.
Opportunities for international education and volunteerism have never been more abundant in the college than now, says Dean Carol Lefebvre. “We treasure the importance of global experiences, believing that students return from the educational trips with an enhanced appreciation of the international similarities of the dental profession and an elevated understanding of the cultures so different from their own,” she says.
GRU dental student Andrea Pierce, who participated in a student-exchange program in China last year, concurs. “My China tour is truly one I will never forget,” she wrote in an essay detailing the trip, which included visits to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing. It was in Hangzhou, for instance, that she observed hospital-based dentistry complete with a nascent immersion in implants and one-at-a-time tooth extraction with doses of antibiotics both before and after the procedure.
Study was interspersed with fun and cultural immersion, she says, including a toboggan ride down the Great Wall of China.
Her classmate, India Lamothe, likewise accumulated a lifetime of memories during her recent student-exchange experience in Italy. Highlights included visits to Juliet’s balcony in Verona and the Peggy Guggenheim Modern Museum of Art in Venice. Rides on trains, gondolas, and a water taxi to Switzerland provided sweeping vistas and breathtaking sights. “I felt like I was in a scene straight out of a movie [in Switzerland],” Lamothe wrote in an essay. “There were beautiful green trees covering the mountains, clear skies, and snow-capped mountains off in the distance. I had to catch my breath a few times because what I was seeing right before my eyes seemed absolutely unreal.”
Like Andrea, she noted several differences between dentistry in America and abroad. In Italy, for instance, dentists complete a longer course of dental school than Americans but don’t require an undergraduate degree. India also was surprised at a dental school in Trieste to see dental students performing endodontics on posterior teeth “since we are limited to anterior teeth and premolars.”
This kind of exposure is precisely the goal of the College of Dental Medicine Student Exchange Program, according to Dr. Franklin Tay, Chairman of Endodontics and Director of the program. And opportunities are growing. The college recently received a $3,750 grant from the International College of Dentists-USA Section Foundation for the program.
“We have exchange programs with schools in China, Egypt, France, Italy, and Saudi Arabia and are working on a new program with a dental school in Ecuador,” Lefebvre says.
CE Among the Florentines
International educational opportunities also are offered through continuing education. For instance, Dr. Jan Mitchell, Associate Professor of Oral Rehabilitation, recently organized a continuing-education course in Florence, Italy. “I was in the Navy for 26 years and lived in Italy for three years,” says Mitchell, noting her enthusiasm to share her love of the country with her colleagues. “I wanted to be an art history major but couldn’t figure out how to make a living at it, so now I visit there often for fun.”
Combining the fun with a continuing-education course, she says, was nothing short of exhilarating.
“It was all very well-planned,” says Dr. Kate Ciarrocca, Assistant Professor of Oral Rehabilitation, who served as an instructor for the course along with Mitchell and Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences Chairman Scott De Rossi, Ciarrocca’s husband. “It never felt touristy. We felt like we were living among the Florentines. It was great.”
Their 12 students, who included both dentists and dental hygienists, received instruction on topics including complex medical management and prevention. “We focused on a general, broad-based sampling,” Mitchell says. “The courses were very well-received.”
Says De Rossi, “We held classes in the mornings and had excursions in the afternoons,” including cooking classes and museum visits.
Scouting Out Locations
“It was a different model than the typical continuing-education course,” Mitchell says. “Instead of everybody staying in a single hotel, for instance, several of us rented flats. Some of the participants thought in advance the trip would be too pricey, but I made a real effort to plan things out and let people know how to make the trip at a reasonable cost.”
Lefebvre, who was among the attendees, is encouraging Mitchell to pursue similar opportunities for international continuing education. “I’m already scouting out locations in London for next year,” Mitchell says. “This is a way to connect with alumni in a very different, personal way.”
Speaking invitations offer still more opportunities for GRU faculty to spread their expertise worldwide. For instance, Dr. Ulf Wikesjö, Professor of Periodontics and Oral Biology, discussed bone tissue engineering at the Grenoble Institute of Technology in Grenoble, France, recently and attended a meeting of the Nobel Biocare Annual Expert Advisory Board in Feusisberg, Switzerland.
Of course, dentists’ most valued resource is their clinical skill – and that asset, too, is put to excellent use throughout the globe. College of Dental Medicine faculty, students, and alumni frequently participate in mission trips and other volunteer efforts in underserved areas of the world.
Vice Dean Kevin Frazier, for example, has climbed the mountains of Ecuador and ventured deep into tropical rainforests, among other locales, to treat some of the globe’s neediest citizens. “You’re literally setting up little MASH units and improvising, providing care for people who have no options besides you,” he says. Frazier, who majored in anthropology as an undergraduate, enjoys not only serving others, but learning from their cultures.
“I’d never been out of the country until I became a dentist,” he says. “I enjoy seeing different parts of the world. Every culture has value, and it’s up to you as the visitor to appreciate and respect it.”
He also broadened his experiences by seeing the results of various lifestyles on oral hygiene – rampant tooth decay in Haiti, for instance, due to extensive consumption of sugar cane, and tooth wear in Ecuador stemming from a coarse natural diet.
Frazier shared his skills in a different way when he traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this past spring for the 35th annual Christian Medical and Dental Associates’ Continuing Medical and Dental Education Conference. Serving as a teacher this time rather than a clinician, he acknowledges it felt odd to board a plane without medications and dental instruments. But as he worked alongside Department of Oral Rehabilitation Interim Chairman Kevin Plummer in providing continuing education to missionary dentists, he realized he was rolling up his sleeves in an equally important way.
“Instead of delivering treatment, I was teaching providers new and efficient ways to treat patients,” he says.
And he cheerfully adds that the trip was not without its exotic touches. “I got a little nervous when two elephants wrapped their trunks around me to give me a hug and a kiss,” he says with a laugh.
Plummer noted his delight that the experience enabled him to spend quality time with his wife, Connie, who as the Children’s Minister of Augusta’s Warren Baptist Church, provided programming for the missionaries’ children. “Connie’s professional world and mine don’t often collide,” he says, “and they did on this trip. We worked with the children in the mornings, then I’d give continuing-education lectures in the afternoons.”
Dr. Van Haywood, Professor of Oral Rehabilitation, has participated in three of the Thailand trips and one in Greece. He muses that international travel somehow makes the world both bigger and smaller simultaneously. For instance, he served on a mission trip with Dr. Kent Brantley, an American aid worker who recently made international headlines while recovering from Ebola after contracting the disease in Liberia during the deadliest outbreak in history.
Haywood says he and wife Angie have made lifelong friends through their Christian Medical and Dental Associates volunteerism. “You see some of the same faces, so it becomes a homecoming, a spiritual retreat,” he says. “These kinds of experiences are a reminder of how blessed we are to live in this country and how noble missionaries are.”
India, the foreign-exchange student, also carries memories that enhance not only her appreciation of the world, but a forever-magnified perspective. “I have a better understanding of how dental students matriculate through school and find comfort in knowing they have some of the same struggles and accomplishments as I do at GRU. At the end of the day, we are all pursuing the same goal of helping our community and educating our patients on oral health care. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to have such a memorable trip and lifelong memories.” n