The big day is approaching. March 8 is when my husband and I are leading a team of dental professionals, their teams, and our own family into the highlands of Guatemala on a mission trip for 8 days. This is the culmination of quite a journey for me, as I began my volunteer/mission work while in dental school on a trip to help locals in Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala. We traveled abroad in 2001, with my dental school professor, his wife, and several lay volunteers from his church. Some things have changed (namely 20 years have gone by!) but still the excitement of the experience, fear of the unknown, and possibility of helping so many people that need my help persists.
In order to get ready for the trip, I’ll be doing these 10 things. If you are preparing for a mission trip of some sort, or ever hope to do so, please read on!
1) Pack well, and pack early
In addition to all of the dental essentials, I will make sure to always include some portable food/treats for those times when the local fare may not be as appealing, or if God forbid, someone gets ill. I make sure also NOT to skimp on the medications that I may need during the trip. Last time we realized that my son gets very carsick when in the back of a bus, so Dramamine will likely find a valued spot in my backpack! Since we are in a very remote area, each item that we pack needs to be vital to the trip, and carefully thought out. This puts a lot of pressure on as not only will I be packing my personal stuff, but also my kids’ personal things, clinic equipment, and projects for my kids to do with the waiting children. Yikes!
2) Supplies at the ready
What we need every day in our dental clinics is vastly different than what we need in a mobile clinic. For example, since we have no ability to follow up with patients, we will use only gut suture for surgical extractions, perform limited endodontic treatment on anterior teeth only (no radiograph capability), and do mild to moderate caries removal and restoration. Significant caries concerns, pulpal exposures, and infected teeth will be removed to promote healthy outcomes.
3) Research the area
I’m checking out the history and culture of those that I will be visiting. I’m studying the social do’s and don’ts, practicing simple language phrases and dental terminology, and taking care to find out how many times our sponsor group has been in the area. Already great change has occurred in this remote part of Guatemala. A dental clinic has been built to house our group, and a local man has been schooled on site by our organization in simple dental care, prophylaxis, and ways to treat infection. A simple, consistent study of who I’m helping, provides me with a deeper lens of understanding as I travel.
4) Understand the challenges of the people we serve
Those that we serve are among the poorest in this country. They live far from civilization as we know it due to the remoteness of the region. However, they raise a spice that is highly valued and expensive called cardamom. This spice is used extensively in chai tea and Indian sweets. Cardamom has to be raised in very specific conditions, and Guatemala is THE spot where most all of the world’s cardamom is raised. DoTerra, the U.S. based essential oil company, has paired with farmers in this region (Alta Verapaz) to help with the production, drying and transport of the delicate pods of cardamom. Due to the remoteness of the region, this has been a difficult economic prospect before to make it economically beneficial for the farmers. They weren’t able to provide for their families because the majority of the profits were going to transporting the spice, and most was arriving in the factories in poor condition, rotted, etc. Now with DoTerra’s support, they have a drying facility to allow for the pods to be adequately preserved before they are transported. Also, doTerra reinvests a portion of all the profits into the community for needed services like schools, hospitals, and dental clinics. And that’s where WE come in. See our clinic and about the partnership here, it’s really cool.
5) Getting to know my team
Not only am I taking members of my “home team” from New Horizons Dental Care, but we are the leaders of the expedition for others outside of our practice. I am reaching out to those people from other cities and states, clinicians from California, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, and Utah that are on the trip, but whom I do not know yet. I want to find out what experience that they have with mission work, what worries they have, and what challenges they foresee. Our group is sponsored locally by Choice Humanitarian, and they will serve as our ambassadors for the language (i.e. Q’eqchi and Spanish), navigating the terrain, and helping us understand the cultural norms.
6) Getting my vaccinations
Contacting the foreign travel nurse at my health department to help me determine how to keep myself, my children, and team members safe from disease while traveling and working.
7) Start a Journal (which my blog acts as in a way!)
There’s nothing quite like writing it down and then enjoying it for years to come. The pictures help to stir some memories, but the patient stories, the inside jokes, the funny happenings are often forgotten weeks after you come home. I like to journal about each day to keep my memories fresh and the experiences alive in my mind for years to come. My kids usually do something like this to turn in as a school project to present to their classes when they return. They have no idea that it is actually serving to make the trip a more vivid, vibrant, living memory for them.
I’ve been asking for patience, direction, leadership, understanding, compassion and love in abundance. Enough to dole out every day to my team of clinicians, our hosts and partners, and to the patients we serve. God and a higher sense of purpose are always tantamount in importance on these types of trips for me.
9) Understanding how this trip fits into the Bigger Picture
There are certain goals and objectives that we are hoping to achieve when we go to Guatemala. We want to cure caries, rid people of infection and pain, bring them health and make their smiles sparkle again. However, the big picture is to leave the area healthier and to train local people to clean teeth and help cure simple dental ailments after we leave. In the Dominican Republic where my family last served on a mission trip, our chief goal was to train dental students in the ways that we as Americans treat caries, extract teeth, do root canals, provide after care, etc. One of my primary aims was to communicate (in horrible broken Spanish) the reasoning behind why I did what I did, and how the different materials worked.
10) Treat the people, not just the teeth
Mission work is always about establishing connections between people, not just fixing teeth. There will always be more need, more infection, more brokenness. I will strive to help as many patients, but to also let them shine their special light into my own life! The way we truly touch a community and lead to a positive outcome is to share whatever skills and love we can to those in need. Being able to share my skills and talents will benefit the Guatemalan people, but the person who will also take away the positivity and abundance is ME.
Each and every mission trip has touched my life in indelible ways. I will never be the same after experiencing poverty so overwhelming that you can’t describe it to your friends in the U.S. I realize the amazing opportunity I have to be able to share the experience with my children as they live and grow, and try to protect them from entitlement issues that plague our first world society. I look forward to thriving, growing, and sharing all the things I possibly can on those 8 days. I can’t hardly wait.