It didn’t take long for the 14 public health nurses to come to a consensus. The question was “What are the five most common problems that your patients face?” They considered only moments before listing them off: malaria, HIV/AIDS, diarrhea, hypertension, and toothaches. Since all 14 are registered nurses, they know how to deal with the first four, but nurse’s training doesn’t prepare them to address dental disease.
That is why we found ourselves in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. A hygienist, a dentist, a hygiene student, and two dental students were part of a collaborative effort between the Zimbabwe Union Health Ministries Department, theå Loma Linda University (LLU) School of Dentistry, and the General Conference Health Ministries Department. The Zimbabwe Union leadership had invited us to provide dental orientation for these 14 nurses in their region, as well as some of the conference health ministries directors. We also planned to provide dental care for them, so that they could “practice” what we expected they would hereafter “preach.”
For almost five days our team taught about basic oral and tooth anatomy, the development of primary and then adult dentition, some common soft-tissue pathology, head-and-neck exams, periodontal disease, and dental caries. We discussed nutrition and demonstrated oral hygiene home care. We taught them what to do when trauma occurs to teeth, and oriented them to infiltration and dental-block anesthesia, teeth cleaning, and extractions, so they could work together with a dentist for patients with these needs. Finally—and most important—we reviewed the unity of oral and systemic health, and how looking into a patient’s mouth can inform about so many general health parameters.
Some of these dedicated nurses are posted in large schools in cities such as Harare, the capital; but most serve very poor patients in small, remote villages, far removed from the urban centers. What they learned would be passed on to other nurses with whom they work, and then to the communities in which their clinics are located.
Because of the relatively remote and developing nature of these communities, dental care is often not available. Many people suffer from undiagnosed and untreated dental disease, which affects their ability to function, as well as their health, comfort, and even life expectancy. As a result of our training sessions, hundreds of people should soon know more about how to maintain good oral health, and be healthier and happier as a result. What better way to emulate our Jesus, who spent so much of His time on earth looking after the health and physical well-being of those He came to save?
The students on the team were equally blessed. They seemed to take to teaching naturally, and each one participated extensively in lectures, demonstrations, and small-group discussions. These activities awakened an appreciation for what they could do for others, as well as the joy of participating in the learning process.
After we became provisionally licensed to do dentistry in Zimbabwe, these students put in long hours helping to examine, diagnose, restore, and professionally clean the teeth of the participants. We worked earnestly, as did the nurses, and we became good friends. When it was time to part from one another, there were tears and hugs and many expressions of mutual appreciation.
LLU hygiene student Emi Hongo was impressed by the commitment of the nurses, and described their questions and enthusiasm as “inspiring.” She added, “They helped to reignite my purpose to learn all about hygiene and the way to provide the best oral health care for each individual patient.”
On Sabbath morning following the week of training, we all shared in the worship experience together. The nurses also staged a presentation featuring much of what they had learned about dental care and demonstrated an understanding of how to apply that knowledge to their daily healing activities.
“I was so proud and amazed at how much the nurses learned,” said LLU dental student Robert Espinoza. “I was so happy to be there and to have taken part in the trip. I never realized that dentistry could be a ministry.”
On Sabbath afternoon the team members and nurses were driven to various Adventist churches throughout Bulawayo, where they gave impromptu presentations on systemic, oral, and dental health and answered questions from those in the audiences.
“We were received with warmth, genuine curiosity, and a hunger to know, understand, and learn,” dental student Susan Chung said. “I hope that I gave back to them as much as I received from the experience.”
After the nurses returned to their communities, the team spent a couple days enjoying some of Africa’s natural beauty. But even through the mists and thunder of Victoria Falls, we could still hear the words of appreciation and feel the ties of friendship developed throughout our learning adventure.
When asked if he would do it again, Espinoza enthusiastically replied, “I am going to do it again!”
What a joy to serve with and for other dedicated health-care professionals from any country, any culture, and any language—all working together to introduce others to better health and to God!