The Dental Program and Operation Fill and Drill
The Indians of México, in time past, reputedly had very good teeth. Skull fragments and jaws found among the remains of old burial urns in caves around El Zopilote bear this out. Teeth in skulls of the aged are usually worn almost to the roots from chewing on fibrous material and eating stone ground corn. But rarely is there much sign of decay.
By contrast, the teeth of the mestizos in the Sierra Madre today are often deplorable. The Spanish element seems to have introduced a sweet tooth. Certainly the introduction of sugar cane, which is grown in small patches along arroyos and used to make panocha (crude sugar blocks) has been a factor in tooth decay, for in ranchos where ca a is grown, even young children have serious dental decay. Ten year olds sometimes have three or four molars already beyond repair. In a region where there have been no more dentists than doctors, the extent of suffering from decayed and abscessed teeth has been fearful. One sees abscesses which drain on the outside of the face, infections so severe they cause fusion of the jaw or permanently blind an eye.
There is little concept of oral hygiene in the barrancas. Until recently, in the upper barrancas, the toothbrush was unknown except in schoolbooks, where its use was directed toward good grades rather than good teeth.
For the past five years, on my return visits to the United States, I have petitioned for toothbrushes—even used ones—in order that children of the Sierra Madre might brush their teeth. Last February I hit the jackpot when Dr. Marvin Stark of the University of California’s Mobile Dental Clinic donated hundreds of toothbrushes, cases of toothpaste and a generous supply of stannous fluoride paste, a single application of which helps protect teeth for six months.
Last March I brought to the Sierra Madre a group of five high school students from the Athenian School in Danville, California. Traveling on foot and mule back from village to village, the students conducted a program of treating the children’s teeth with the fluoride compound, taught them how to brush their teeth and presented each child with a toothbrush and toothpaste of his own. The Athenian students conducted the program eagerly, and the children responded in like spirit.
Over the past four years I have extracted thousands of decayed teeth, having been taught the basics by a dentist in Santa Barbara. But what has grieved me most has been the necessity to extract or leave to decay further, teeth which could be filled were there a dentist to fill them. This summer, at long last, we conducted a full scale “Operation Drill and Fill." Dr. Pieter Dahler, a Dutch-born senior dental student at the University of California, spent most of August as dentist in Ajoya, with his new bride Barbara, as dental assistant. Amongst Pieter, Dr. Stark, Dr. Charles Renn and other dentists from California to Ohio, we managed to equip an impressive dental clinic, complete with high and low speed dental drills, electric amalgam mixers, and suction machines; all powered by a new gasoline-run generator.
The same day Pieter and Barbara reached Ajoya, Mrs. Shirley Luedders and her daughter, Melany, arrived from Cincinnati. A trained dental hygienist, Shirley not only vigorously cleaned badly encrusted teeth, but became proficient at extraction. Operation Drill and Fill got off to a slower start than expected. The first few mornings I even had to go out and drum up business. Most of the villagers had never seen a dentist before, and the concept of repairing a tooth before it became unbearably painful was new to them. Many of our first teeth were, therefore, cases for extraction.
But after Pieter filled a few black-pitted front teeth for teenage girls, leaving their mouths as bright as new, the idea took hold and the last week of Pieter’s stay, the waiting porch was packed with patients needing fillings. Pieter filled over 200 teeth, but the need remains enormous.
While in Ajoya, Pieter also taught me the basics of filling teeth, and Miguel Angel did some observing and assisting, so that in cases of emergency we are able to do stop-gap repair. The need remains great for real dentists, however, whether for long or short term visits. The clinic is fully equipped. Any dentist or senior dental student who might be interested and can put up with a few backwoods inconveniences, like gnats flying into the mouths of his patients, is encouraged to contact us.