San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dentists Provide Free Care in Rural Communities

USUALLY, people cringe at the thought of visiting thedentist. But in at least one case, the opposite holds true:people actually line up for a dental exam.At a quarter to seven, as the visiting dentists arrive atEscuela Alice Moya in the rural village of San Roque, agroup of Ticos serve as a welcoming committee, some havingwaited since five in the morning. The group consists ofpeople returning from the previous day, along with thosewho hope to beat the crowd, and some who simply want towatch the activities.For the second year, dentists from the University ofIowa have been providing free dental care for the surroundingareas of Grecia, in coffee country west of SanJosé. This year’s clinic sites include San Roque, SanVicente and San Juan.Each clinic serves 50 to 200 patients a day, with a staffof eight to 12 dentists. Between exams, fillings and extractions,the dentists offer smiles and friendly greetings, insometimes broken Spanish. The intended meaning is clear,as dentist Chris Cowherd said: “You can overcome a languagebarrier by being friendly.”Dr. Elizabeth Ledezma, director of Dentistry Servicesat the Grecia Hospital, coordinated sites based on need.Ledezma understands the limited capabilities of the CostaRican Social Security System to provide dental care forevery Tico in need.Many Costa Ricans’ needs for more dental care alsobecame clear to Dr. Jim Martin, who joined the group for asecond year. “We saw the problems, and we knew we hadto make a return trip,” Martin said.THE service project originated from the gratitude ofDr. Shawn Kerby. “Seven years ago I came to Costa Rica.I took so much from this country, I wanted to give somethingback,” Kerby said. Three years ago, he approachedthe Hispanic Dental Association at the University of Iowawith the idea of a service project for Costa Rica.The group sought the assistance of David Short, a residentof both Iowa and Costa Rica, whom Kerby knew fromhis initial trip here. Short, a member of the Grecia Lions’Club and president of its sister club in Milton, Iowa, connectedthe Grecia Lions’ Club with the dentists, who lastyear made their first appearance.The first group consisted of 18 dentists at two sites whotreated 1,250 Ticos. This year’s group had 33 memberswho cared for more than 1,500 people in the four days thedentists served the communities.“I want to make this an annual trip,” said Kerby. Othermembers of the group also see a return to Costa Rica intheir future.GRECIA’S Lions’ Club helped organize the effort onthe Costa Rica side. The Lions’ Club will care for someequipment that the dentists leave in anticipation of nextyear’s needs. Additionally, various members of the Lions’Club housed the dentists, sharing local customs and hospitalitywith their guests.For many in the group, Costa Rica, its language and itscustoms lie far outside their normal ranges of experience.Most of the dentists and students speak little to no Spanish,but this did not deter them.“It’s a phenomenal opportunity. There are cultural differences,yes, but I don’t feel out of place,” dentist RyanHussong said.Many of the young dentists seized the opportunity as anexperience for exposure to a different level of dentistryfrom what their prior experience had afforded them, and allagreed the trips will likely become annual events.

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