Health promotion in Guatemala

I arrived in San Luis in May, 2008, and one of the first impressions I had was that the dental situation here was abysmal for many of the very young children. Kids as young as four or five were lacking many of their front teeth and/or their mouths resembled some of the craggy caves I had visited in Peru, with their teeth resembling brown stalactites that had been weathered down throughout the generations (see picture at left).

When I began working at the parish clinic in July, I instantly began thinking how I could use my educational training as a teacher to try to improve the situation here. From what I observed in San Luis, a very rural town of four to five thousand people, where people live in wooden shacks with rusted metal roofs or that of thatched palms, dental care was not a sound priority in their lives. In a rustic town where fourteen-year-olds are enrolled in the second grade, seventeen-year-old illiterates sign their marriage certificate with a thumbprint, and an average working-class family struggles to earn a few dollars a day (and that does not begin to describe life in the outlying villages), the decision was made to promote dental health at the level when it is most critical, in the first years of life.

I asked my parents if they could arrange for their local parish in Skokie, IL, St. Peter’s, to donate toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste around Thanksgiving time. The very generous parishioners did so, sending over two hundred eighty brushes and one hundred ninety-five tubes (see picture at right). Scrounging around the clinic office I work in, I discovered an old coloring book designed for children about how to maintain healthy habits. It was a drawing, accompanied by a corresponding one sentence instruction of “Brush your teeth at least twice a day,” followed by a brief passage of scripture relating to the health code. Borrowing the drawn pictures, I wrote up a guide with the proper instructions as to general health and dental practices, and then had our Salvadoran doctors, Dr. Manny, general medicine, and his wife, Dr. Ana Maria, the dentist, make extensive changes to develop a polished, fifteen page brochure. The pastor at my parents’ church was so impressed, he suggested a Christmas collection, and that accumulated over 550 brushes and 215 tubes of toothpaste.
The local administrator of the clinic, Glendy, and I decided to visit the Maya Mopan (the local indigenous language) school, and collected information for the kindergarten through sixth grade school. The next week, along with the dentist, Ana Maria, we began presenting to three groups of students. Several of the students were familiar with our clinic, but many had never had their teeth examined by Ana Maria.

Over the course of the morning, we began to realize that some of the children were afraid to visit the dentist, and knew less about dental care than we had expected. We changed our presentation up a bit, and began to refer more to the brochure and Dr. Ana Maria gave brief demonstrations of what occurs when a child visits her at the dental office (see picture at left). Our hope was to make the children feel more comfortable with the idea of coming to visit us.

In the days following our visit, a small stream of students began to flow into our clinic, enticed by the coupon for a free dental consultation we included in the brochure. Some escaped with just a cleaning, others had teeth extracted or cavities filled. In the next few weeks we will visit three more schools, and distribute hundreds more brushes, pastes, and health brochures. This entire experience has taught me, but for the accident of being born into a middle-class, North American family, human beings, by default, are born lacking the ability to afford such basic tools like a toothbrush and toothpaste. For a few hundred children, we can at least provide a basic minimum.