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The International Health Service: Dentistry in the Honduran jungle

Blog Author Shyam Karia

Blog Date 30/05/2019

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The road to Honduras

It was back in 2012 when my dad first showed me a short clip from a medical camp in Yonibana, Sierra Leone. The dentist was extracting teeth from a young local boy and it was this image that made me first consider studying dentistry. Since then, it has always been a dream to volunteer in a camp such as this and it was in December 2018 when I had my first chance to do so.

At the time I was a Foundation Dentist working on the Stevenage scheme and it was my TPD - Elinor who introduced me to the International Health Service (IHS), who organise bi-annual medical trips to Honduras. Hearing about some of IHS's previous trips to Honduras, my gut instinct was to sign up immediately but naturally there were some reservations. Limited annual leave and logistics were playing on my mind.

But having returned happily and alive, all these reservations now seem insignificant. I'm glad I took the leap to commit and I thank Elinor for all the support and motivational spirit she showed me along the way.
 

What is the International Health Service?

The International Health Service is an all-volunteer organisation that provides medical and dental care to the people across Honduras. They are based in the United States but have volunteers from across the world. Since this was my first time in Honduras, it was decided that I would be eased in gently and so I was placed in one of the more 'luxurious' locations - Rus Rus.


Treating patients in Rus Rus

shyam-honduras-patients-650px.jpgRus Rus is a small quiet village in the east of Honduras. It lies in the jungle along the Coco River very close to the border with Nicaragua. Rus Rus is one of the few villages in Honduras that has the privilege of having a small hospital which provides healthcare to the region. The hospital is surprisingly well-equipped containing two consultation rooms, a ward (with two beds), a delivery room and even an inactive operating theatre! The regular staff working at the hospital are limited to two nurses who step up to the role of a doctor when required.

The majority of our dental patients came from across the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. The gruelling 4-6hour trek in 35°C heat was completely normal to the locals, be it young or old.

One of my youngest patients endured this hike with his mother: a one-year old boy who presented with a large left hand facial swelling due to extensive decay in his deciduous teeth. It always upsetting when you see this much decay in a child and this was one of the few cases in which the team was truly helpless.
 
The best we could do was prescribe antibiotics, arrange a review and advise mum that she should take her son to the nearest main hospital a mere 7-hour truck journey away. It's a stark difference to the treatment options a similar patient back home might receive, and this reality can be tough to face.
 

Wow! What a team

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Our Rus Rus team comprised of an MD, a pharmacist, two dentists (myself and a colleague, Nihir), two nurses, an engineer, a radio-operator, translators and two general volunteers.

The pharmacy formed a crucial part of the hospital and Katherine, our pharmacist, did a great job of ensuring all the medical and dental patients were well cared for. She treated numerous patients for lice and parasites, not to the mention all the dental and medical patients requiring post-operative analgesia.

Jessalyn and Molly - our nurses - were absolute stars and willing to help with whatever came their way. One moment they were seen running tests in the rudimentary hospital laboratory and assessing patients with our doctor; and the next they were caring for our dental patients ensuring that they were well hydrated and fit for discharge.

Gerrard was our MD. The years he had spent living in Honduras to treat the locals were reflected in how all the patients respected and trusted him.

Gordon our radio-operator and team leader, was responsible for not only keeping us connected to the 7 other IHS teams working simultaneously across Honduras, but also our families back home.

Cheryl and Luana who were our general helpers formed the backbone of the team. In between keeping everyone fed and happy, they helped the team in whatever way possible. For the dental part, this involved educating and delivering OHI at the local school.

And then Russel - a jack of all trades - he fixed anything and everything. Toilets, trucks, dental equipment, the list goes on.


It's not all just about pulling teeth…

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Despite the 'comfortable' accommodation, running cold water and real-ish beds, living and working in Rus is still hard work. There's always a flurry of emotions but it's 100% worth it.

Evenings were spent swimming in the local river (truly a beautiful sight) or maybe playing a game of volleyball with the locals. And when we were too tired, there was Farkle. A new game for us Brits, but the Americans are all over it!

Sunday's are traditionally a day of rest and for us this meant a short hike to a neighbouring village and Macau sanctuary. If you like fancy, noisy, colourful birds, you're in for a treat!


Want to take part next year?

A trip to Honduras teaches you to find pleasure in the simple things in life. You gain perspective and an appreciation for the world we live in. Everyone should have a right to healthcare and it's truly a shame that many do not have this privilege.

During our stay in Rus Rus, the team treated over 1500 medical and dental patients and I have no doubt that everyone one of them received the highest-quality of care possible.

For me, the two weeks I spent in Honduras were among the most fulfilling, satisfying and enjoyable periods of my life.

If you think you'd like to get involved next year, contact IHS. They'd love to hear from you!

shyam-karia-portrait-125px.pngShyam Karia, foundation dentist

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