Lao Dental Family

When I left Laos, I felt I had fulfilled a lifelong dream, except I hadn’t dreamed it yet – the dream had created itself while I was awake.   So deep were the connections, so new and diverse were the experiences, and so warm were the friendships, that my life’s values were expanded and recalibrated.

I went to Laos with the ADA sponsored program through Health Volunteers Overseas – a non-profit organization that supports healthcare education in developing nations.  It was the HVO concept – to teach and share ideas for capacity building that would have a long-term sustainable positive effect on the health of an underserved population - that struck me as a worthy goal for a volunteer activity.  As a private practice dentist, my teaching had primarily been with patients and staff, but I was happy to develop a presentation on various preventive, restorative and patient management techniques. Specifically, I worked with the dental school in Laos’ capital city, Vientienne, to share ideas in restorative dentistry with the faculty and students.  Drs. Vanpheng, chair of restorative dentistry, and Dr. Khombay, chair of pediatric dentistry, served as my hosts, interpreters, and colleagues.  We shared ideas about emergency treatment of abscesses, promoted enhanced infection control, discussed pediatric and adolescent patient management, presented techniques for caries prevention, and helped in treatment planning for removable prosthetics - all in a dental school clinic that had sporadic access to compressed air, frequent power outages, and rarely any suction available.  We worked together in the clinic, where I observed these talented clinicians to deliver quality dentistry with very limited supplies, and teach students as well.  They taught me very quickly a more intense version of adaptability!  The limit in resources seemed to make them even smarter and more compassionate. With good nature, they only laughed politely at my clumsy language attempts in Lao, where one of my dental words seemed to mean some kind of underwear in Lao language.  The good humor of the faculty was even more impressive as I learned that they all went off to their private practices in the evenings after working all day in the dental school.

Drs. Vanpheng and Khombay quickly became more than colleagues – they shared Lao food and traditions with me, along with an insider’s look into the temples, sights and shopping of Vientienne.  I learned how to wear one of the traditional skirts properly and how to love laap, a chicken and rice type of salad.  The surroundings and the culture seemed to flow naturally through these two brilliant and compassionate women.  In fact, I found a specific form of Lao atmosphere to be present in all that I encountered– the sense of family.  And I was welcomed.  I will never forget the generous spirit with which they shared their professional knowledge and personal friendship. I have since returned twice to Laos, and will continue to return.  Each time, I see advances in the dental school – specifically in prevention and infection control, despite the ongoing lack of resources.

With the sharing of ideas through a number of HVO volunteers, there are changes that will make a difference for the oral health of many people in Laos, and the success of the oral health care professionals in treating their own population. And it has made a huge difference in me – I will share the Lao adaptability and sense of family.

It is the journey that I dreamed about, and now I see the path.

Dr. Sally Hewett, DDS

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