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ASDOH Students Impact Lives in Rural Mexico

David, a six-year- old boy from Chiapas, Mexico, traveled with his family 18 hours by car to receive the second of multiple surgeries to repair his cleft lip and palate. David also had several infected teeth that needed repair or removal to eliminate infection and allow for proper healing for the surgery that followed minutes later to repair his cleft lip and palate. 

Maria, a young woman in her 20s, walked with a noticeable limp and had a non-functional right arm.  Her oral care required multiple restorations and she complained of pain in her left jaw, later diagnosed with temporal-mandibular joint dysfunction.  However, Maria’s transformation would involve much more than her oral care. 

David and Maria were just two of the many lives changed when A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ATSU-ASDOH) students traveled to a rural town in Guerrero, Mexico.  From June 26 through July 3, Tim Lukavsky, D.D.S., assistant professor, ASDOH, and fourth-year dental students Brett Flaherty, Brian Banks, Marisa Lee, Stanley Cox, and third-year dental student Tanner Flaherty (Brett’s brother), along with other volunteers from Louisiana and Texas gathered at Clinica Betel in Atoyac, Mexico to treat medically underserved individuals.

Clinica Betel

Clinica Betel is a surgical and dental facility located in Atoyac, a small town located about two hours from Acapulco.  The Clinic was started in 1995 after surgeon in Louisiana, Russell Romero, M.D., D.D.S, brought children from Mexico to the United States for cleft lip and palate surgeries.  After finding great difficulty in getting the children out of Mexico, Dr. Romero decided to build a clinic where people could be served in their own town.

Clinica Betel “the compound” now comprises several acres with multiple buildings consisting of housing, a church, dental clinic, surgical suites, and recovery rooms.  The Clinic is operated through donations collected by participating doctors.  Mexican local aid makes available necessities such as clean water and electricity.

Reaching Out to Serve

The ASDOH student volunteers became involved because of Dr. Lukavsky’s friendship with the physician mission group who sponsors the trip to Clinica Betel twice each year.  This is the 13th year that Dr. Lukavsky has participated in the project and “after seeing ASDOH’s work ethic, compassion and care for these people by our ASDOH students, five to eight ASDOH students are wanted for next year’s trip,” said Dr. Lukavsky. 

Volunteers from Texas and Louisiana included anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, general surgeons, ophthalmologists, and surgical and dental assistants. Dr. Lukavsky’s daughter Sabrina and family friend Ben Wachter (a pre-dental student) also volunteered.  Spouses and children helped with meals, sterilization of instruments, and taking care of recovering patients.  In total, there were 30 volunteers.

Forming a bond

The night before David’s surgery, he and his family passed time with ASDOH students. “Even with our limited Spanish-English communication, David could not stop telling us how happy he was that we were here to fix him,” said Brett Flaherty.  

On the day of the surgery, it was a combined effort from all surgical teams. Surgeons closed the roof of David’s mouth that was once his combined nasal and oral cavity, which made it extremely difficult for him to eat, drink, breathe and speak. The day after the surgery, David was up bright and early and happy as ever. He and his dad threw their arms around all the team members and thanked them for making the journey into their lives.  “The road for David has been long, since his surgeries are spaced out with the mission trip being only twice a year,” said Dr. Lukavsky.  “But with each mission trip David knows that he is one step closer to being made whole. His smile is priceless, and it is a special feeling to know that we have been part of making that possible for him.”

The first time Brian Banks met Maria, she was having a seizure in Clinica Betel’s waiting room.  “After the episode subsided and she relaxed for about 15 minutes, I invited her back to provide dental care,” said Banks.  “After questioning her about her teeth and running diagnostic tests, I realized Maria’s jaw pain was from the boney mandible and temporal-mandibular joint area.”  With hesitancy, she described that her father had recently hit her in the face and beat her repeatedly proclaiming that she was ugly and a curse to the family.  Her mother also physically and verbally abused her.  Banks provided a dental cleaning and restorations to remove dental caries from her mouth but said “the dental services I rendered that day took a back seat to the friendship that was formed.”

“As Maria stood up from her dental chair and as I escorted her to the exit, she threw her arms around me and thanked me for my services,” said Banks.  “I learned through an interpreter that Maria was amazed that someone would actually do something nice for her.  Maria and I walked to the waiting room where I stopped and told her ’Tu eres bonita,’ which means ’you are beautiful.’.”

Banks, a former member of the Florida Marlins baseball team, said that “this was an amazing experience — to make a difference by providing dental care — but to provide hope and love to these people was the real reward of this journey.”

Over the course of four and one-half days, more than 50 general and cleft palate surgeries and 60 eye exams were performed.  More than 300 dental patients were treated, providing 300 fillings, 400 extractions, multiple root canals and 15 new dentures all by ASDOH student volunteers.

“We often worked 11- to 13-hour days and then would run four hour shifts throughout the night caring for patients who had major surgeries,” said Brett Flaherty.  “Despite the energy this effort required, I was amazed that all volunteers pushed forward with excitement.”

There is strength in serving others.  It was motivating to get out of bed and get to work when we knew that patients had traveled great distances to arrive before sunrise to seek services that would relieve their pain and conditions.”