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News | April 22, 2008

Annual dental exercise relieves Honduran children’s dental problems

By Tech. Sgt. William Farrow Joint Task Force-Bravo public affairs

A U.S. military dental readiness training exercises (DETRETE) at Catholic University's dental school in Tegucigalpa April 7-19 examined and treated more than 250 local children who otherwise rarely have an opportunity sit in a dentist's chair.

For the last eight years dentists and dental technicians from throughout the U.S. have come to Honduras and spend two weeks working the exercise that has become a U.S. Southern Command staple event arranged and supported by Joint Task Force-Bravo.

The children, ranging in ages from five years old to 10 years old, are mostly students from two of the poorer schools in Tegucigalpa; Escuela Mon Senior Fiallos and Escuella Lempira.

However, Dr. Wilmer Amador, JTF-Bravo medical office said during past DENTRETEs dentists have also reached out to treat children from local orphanages and small villages too.

"If the visiting doctors have the time and we can make arrangements, we can see more than just these children from Tegucigalpa, and in the future hopefully we will be able to expand this annual DENTRETE to include Air Force dentists who have also shown interest in participating," he said.

The DENTRETE operation is one of simplified logistical needs since Catholic University allows the use of its facility.

"The university has actually worked us into its calendar and they have been more than gracious and accommodating for this exercise, allowing us use of its equipment as well," Dr. Amadore said.

Without having to transport equipment to Honduras, the U.S. technicians can spend more time concentrating on offering educational information about the importance oral hygiene.

"Some of their time is used explaining how important it is for the children to keep their teeth brushed and flossed," Dr. Amador said.

After the children receive a toothbrush and instructions on how to properly use it, they anxiously await a visit with the dentist for a cleaning and fluoride treatment.

One daunting tasks the dental technicians have is coaxing the children to the dental procedure area, which Spec. Julio Colon, a dental assistant from Fort Hood, Texas, said can be quite a frightening experience for a seven year old.

Specialist Colon, who speaks fluent Spanish and is a father of two, said he has believes he has the tools needed to help the children to relax.

"I go to them and get down on their level and talk with them to gain their trust," said Specialist Colon. "Since I have children of my own, I have a little bit of experience dealing with children on their level."

"After we've made small talk and maybe we've cut up with each other a little, I begin to guide them back to the chair where I'll sit them down, introduce them to the dentist and then we'll explain how we are going to clean their teeth and look for any problems and that we're here to help them," Specialist Colon said.

It's during the cleaning process that the dentists often make discoveries of problems and often have to begin procedures to correct serious tooth problems associated with cavities and decay.

"If we come across any problems, I tell them we're going to fix their teeth, which they usually understand," Spec. Colon said. "But you can tell they are often still pretty nervous, so I'll continue to talk with them and cut up a little."

The teams also try to calm the children by playing music and using distractions like cartoon character stickers.

Army Capt. (Dr.) Dan Messer, a dentist from Fort Sill, Okla., said most of the work concentrates on drilling out and fillings cavities, performing minor root canals and capping teeth with stainless steel crowns.

"If the tooth is decayed and we can drill it, cap it and save the tooth, we've done our job," Captain Messer said. "That way we're saving teeth and saving smiles."

Specialist Colon said if the dentist recognizes procedures are needed to repair serious problems, he will explain to the child that they will need to give the child a shot to numb the area so the child won't feel the procedure.

"That's the scariest thing for them (the needle), but I tell them that we'll count together and it will be over before we ever get to ten," Specialist Colon said. "I don't lie to them, I tell them it is going to burn a little, but that it allows us to help them."

According to Dr. Nuria Iglesias, a dentist with the clinic at Escuela Mon Senior Fiallos School, the overall general health of the children has greatly improved as their dental needs are met. She said although she is capable of providing some dental care, the care she provides is limited and normally reserved for older children with worsening dental problems.

She said the annual DENTRETEs are often the first time the children are exposed to dental care and over the years she has seen the DENTRETEs improve the children's overall healthcare needs.

"It's this first contact with dental technicians that is so important," she said.