Luz Marina Ocon is a lucky woman. Ms. Ocon, whose family owns a hotel in Managua, Nicaragua, was successfully treated with radiation and surgery for a malignant oral lesion, which her dentist diagnosed three years ago during a routine examination.
But in the ramshackle town of Chiquilistagua, just five miles south
of Ms. Ocon’s tidy neighborhood in
the Nicaraguan capital, the chances of surviving oral cancer are far slimmer. With two-thirds of its 10,000 residents unemployed, and one-third illiterate, Chiquilistagua has few people who can afford routine dental care, let alone treatment for oral cancer and other complex conditions.
Ms. Ocon’s niece, Aura Caldera, a third-year student at NYUCD, was well aware of the impact that chronically high unemployment and hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters have had on the economy, putting dental care out of most Nicaraguans’ reach. So during a visit to her aunt in spring 2004, Aura proposed an outreach visit from NYUCD. Ms. Ocon offered to help organize the mission on-site by coordinating travel and accommodations in Nicaragua, while Aura and a classmate, Tammy Chen, arranged the trip from New York.
The students sought guidance from two outreach veterans, Dr. Stuart M. Hirsch, Associate Dean for International Programs and Development, and
Dr. Lidia Kiremidjian-Schumacher, a Professor Emerita of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology, who leads an annual visit to the Dominican Republic.
With their encouragement, the students secured an invitation from Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health, and arranged for Dr. Carlos Espinosa, Dean of the Dental College of the Universidad Americana Dental College in Managuaty Americana, to send half a dozen students to assist with five days of screening, treatment and translation. The NYU students also obtained equipment and supplies courtesy of Henry Schein, Brasseler USA, and Colgate-Palmolive.
Meanwhile, Aura and Tammy assembled a team of six faculty and staff, 11 additional DDS students, two pediatric residents, a resident and fellow in oral and maxillofacial surgery, plus a student in the Advanced Program in General Dentistry for International Dentists.
Arriving in Chiquilistagua on
March 5th, the team converted a school gymnasium into a clinic to screen and treat 578 patients ranging in age from two to 78. Many had painful infections. Some had never seen a dentist, while others had a history of irregular visits, mainly to treat tooth decay that had already reached an advanced stage. One person had particularly extensive decay in areas where extractions had been performed, root tips remained, and crowns had worn away. A separate pediatric area was set up under the direction of Dr. Amr Moursi, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry, to perform extractions and restorations and place sealants and fluoride varnishes. There was also an educational component: Students
gave oral hygiene presentations to schoolchildren, and faculty members made a trip to Managua to conduct a continuing education program at the Universidad Americana’s Dental College.
Students said the Nicaragua visit was an eye-opener. “This experience helped me put things in perspective,” said third-year student Maria Kim. “With our busy schedules, I find it’s easy to get caught up in life’s little details while overlooking what’s really important. This trip removed me from my comfort zone and helped me see that the world is a much bigger place.” A follow-up visit is planned for next year.
Editor’s note: As a result of
the outreach, Aura Caldera
and Tammy Chen were both
honored with NYU President’s Service Awards. In addition, Aura won the Reynolds Scholarship for Social Entrepreneurship awarded
by the Wagner Graduate School at NYU. See related article.