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Washington State Dental Association

UWSoD Overseas: Karen Zemplenyi in Peru

A team member on the trip with Zemplenyi teaches Peruvian school children about oral hygiene basicsBy Karen Zemplenyi
For ten days during the tail end of March 2014 I joined a group providing dental services to the underserved communities outside Cuzco, Peru. These were ten days which not only allowed for exploration of Machu Picchu and the consumption of Peruvian delicacies like guinea pig, but provided dental opportunities unrivaled by any in my school curriculum. 

After 13 hours of flights and we arrived at 11,000 feet in a quaint town where dramatic scenery, quaint cobblestone streets, and an endless supply of tea made from coca leaves will cure anyone’s bout of altitude sickness.  We were given 2 days to acclimate and explore the sites and then our group, Idaho Condor Humanitarian Services, spent the next 7 days traveling by bus to small villages outside Cuzco. 

At the various community buildings and schools where we set up our mobile clinics, locals would greet us by the hundreds, already in lines waiting for treatment.  Clinic times were from 9am-4pm daily and the demand so large we would often have no time for a lunch break- but this never seemed to bother me.  The excitement of diagnosing, treating, alleviating pain, and then receiving peoples’ immense gratitude was distraction enough from the rumbling of my stomach.  

The breakdown of our dental group was as follows: two American dentists, two Peruvian dentists, three hygienists, two dental assistants, ten pre-dental college volunteers, and me- the only current dental student.  After a half day of assisting at our first village, it became clear that demand for service was so high, it was necessary for me to start treating my own patients.  

The Peruvian "operatory"Though concerned at first at being the only dental student I realized this provided a unique opportunity to push myself and work independently for the first time.  As a rising fourth year student who had already been doing fillings and extractions (both simple and surgical) under supervision at my school, I was thrown into running my own chair.  My “unit” comprised a white plastic lawn chair pushed against a counter top with a package of ace bandages for neck support.  Though rudimentary, my set up allowed for rapid fire extractions and the treatment of around 15 patients a day. Compare this to school where I see two patients per day for 3 hours each- on a good day when scheduled patients actually show up!  

By the end of my Peruvian trip I had done over 45 extractions, placed a handful of sutures, and even participated in frenectomies, operculectomies, and pathology removal.  My patients ranged from 7 year olds to 87 year olds, the mentally disabled, the pregnant, the overly anxious grandmothers, and the stoic teens.  The number of patients on which I worked, and the spectrum of cases to which I was exposed during those ten days without a doubt pushed me as a student and allowed the person who returned to school to perform with increased confidence, speed, and skill- not to mention, a quadrupling in my Spanish vocabulary. 

I would recommend this trip wholeheartedly for any dental student wanting to take his/her basic skills to the next level and aid communities severely in need.  My ten days in Peru provided me a perfect blend of dental experience and travel entertainment and I look forward to my next dental volunteer adventure abroad!


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