Some of us are filled with dread when the time comes to visit the dentist — the picking and probing with shiny sharp things, the grinding, drilling and suction, and the fear of hearing a monologue from behind a mask that begins with “open wide” and ends with “root canal.”
But there are dental scenarios that are even scarier — like suffering searing pain 24/7 from a rotted or broken tooth with no dentist in sight.
That’s the reality, today, for many of the 9 million people in Haiti. One of the poorest nations on the planet — most Haitians have to get by on $2 a day — Haiti was clobbered by a Magnitude 7 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010 and a series of 52 aftershocks that the Haitian government estimated killed as many as 300,000 people, injured another 300,000 and destroyed the homes of 1.8 million.
Many still live in tent cities, so preventative dentistry is not a priority and when people inevitably run into problems, it’s difficult to even find a dentist.
According to the World Health Organization, there are fewer than 100 dentists working in Haiti.
But there are people in the world who are determined to make a difference. One of them, St. John’s dentist Dr. Stewart Gillies, is gearing up for his third trip to Haiti on Jan. 13 — an ambitious week-long expedition of 11 health-care workers, including dentists, dental assistants, hygienists and a technician.
Recently I had lunch with Gillies in a crowded St. John’s restaurant, noisy with patrons already in holiday mode. Clever and witty, the lanky 58-year-old Scot — who still speaks with the lilt of his hometown, Glasgow — loves a joke, and anyone who has spent time around his Avalon Mall clinic would recognize the roar of his laughter.
Since the 1950s, a string of dentists who graduated from the University of Glasgow, Scotland went to work for the Grenfell Mission in St. Anthony and in Labrador, so there is a longtime bond between the University of Glasgow and Newfoundland and Labrador.
After a requisite internship, Gillies came to St. John’s 34 years ago and, after a short time, started his Avalon Mall dental clinic.
But in those years Gillies has done more than drill and fill, raise a family, kayak and play his fiddle with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. He has been an invaluable resource for refugees from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bulgaria, Sierra Leone and Kosovo who landed in St. John’s, in many cases with very little.
Gillies downplays his history as a benefactor of new immigrants, as well as his role as leader of a new Canadian dental care outreach program, insisting he is only the visible tip of a huge underground network of caring people who willingly provide help in many ways.
He says, “You let them know the need, you let them know the situation and people come along because there’s a tremendous benevolence among the folks of Newfoundland. We saw this when 9-11 came down — people just want to help. If they can help ‘hands on,’ it’s almost better for them in some ways.”
Parachuting dentists into a foreign country is a complex affair, so Gillies and his team launched the Canadian International Dental Foundation (CIDF) from the offices of the Newfoundland and Labrador Dental Association on Centennial Street in Mount Pearl, with Gillies as president.
One big hurdle of the newly formed CIDF was to secure status as a charitable organization — a task well beyond the skill set of the dental community.
But once again, the network that Gillies describes as a benevolent “undercurrent of activity that goes on in the community” provided the expertise needed in the form of lawyer Ken Templeton and accountant Peter Winters, who stepped up to the plate to set up the foundation and to guarantee that every dollar funneled through CIDF is accounted for according to Canada Revenue Agency’s exacting rules for charitable organizations.
“We looked at that and we talked to many other people and they said, ‘You’ll never get it. This will be a major problem for ya,’ but (Templeton) ran it all through,” says Gillies, “He did this all … pro bono.”
It’s only a 90-minute flight from Miami, Fla., to Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola that Haiti shares with Newfoundland’s winter playground — the Dominican Republic — but Haiti is a world apart.
“The place has got rhythm,” says Gillies.
“You drive downtown or through the commercial district, the cacophony of noise, the activity, people with wheelbarrows with people in them — kids that are sick, tiles, fruit, you name it … people sitting on the roof (of the local bus) with bananas, goats and donkeys. It’s quite stimulating.”
Gillies got a first-hand look at the need for dental services, too.
“We stopped in to this clinic, it was about 11 o’clock at night. … Out on the verandah, we had to climb over knee-deep bodies. … These were patients waiting for the following day!”
Gilles made a second trip to Haiti in fall 2011, where he and a dentist from the Carolinas, Gary Kinsey, saw up to 63 patients a day in a makeshift clinic in the Cap-Haitian area, 135 kilometres from Port-au-Prince, cleaning and filling cavities without power tools.
Gillies watched a Haitian dentist deftly extract an impacted wisdom tooth with the aid of a hammer and chisel and treated two walk-ins with problems that never surface at his Avalon Mall clinic — broken jaws.
I asked Gillies if he worried about his safety while visiting Haiti: “It’s always in the back of your mind. Generally speaking, every place has got an armed guard,” he said.
“For me, I’ve always felt very safe there and when you get out into the countryside, the people are just like people anywhere — they’re like Newfoundlanders. The kids going to school are spotless, white shirts — they may have come out of a tent, but these are shirts that are so white, you can’t look at them, you know? They all got the school uniform on, the hair is buckled, pulled back from their face — they’re smiling!”
To assemble a team for the upcoming Jan. 13 trip to Bassin-Bleu, near the south coast of Haiti, Gillies sent an email out to the provincial dental community and in a week he had a full complement of volunteers.
The 11-person team will abandon their offices, dig deep into their own pockets for the airfare and go to a lot of trouble to take their expertise to the people of Haiti.
“Oh, it’s expensive,” says Gillies. “You’ve got to get vaccinated for all the various diseases that are down there, you’ve got to take your anti-malaria, you’ve got to have the right clothes, scrubs and whatever else — we take equipment with us, too. And we’ll also take supplies that we’ll leave there … you know, go there with bags bulging and you come back empty.”
On the upcoming trip, Gillies and his team will treat patients at a field clinic at Bassin-Bleu near Jacmel, a picturesque colonial town that suffered casualties and damage during the 2010 quake.
Gillies draws a parallel with an earlier time in Newfoundland.
“People travelling miles and miles and miles, just to get relief from pain,” says Gillies, “(is) not dissimilar to Newfoundland many years ago when the Grenfell (Mission) went up the coast with a boat and there was a couple of dentists on board and they lined up down the pier and they worked from dawn to dusk — so, we’ve come a long way.”
For Gillies, the hardest part of working in Haiti is not the long days, concerns about safety or sanitation, the lack of modern equipment or the hot, humid climate that disables electronic equipment and even rusts stainless steel.
It’s “the emotional stuff,” says Gillies. “It all seems so unfair, you know? Because the kids are the same (as back home). They want to play football and have a candy bar, do stuff that you and I used to do.”
Gillies’s anti-cavity commando raids on Haiti are just the beginning for CIDF.
Already, CIDF has formed a partnership with a charity group that has operated in Haiti for 25 years. As Gillies puts it, “they’ve taken a good shine to us.”
He feels that, ultimately, it will be partnerships, friendships and the exchange of information that the CIDF’s visits generate that will make life better in Haiti.
“You have to make relationships, you have to get to know people, you have to encourage them, teach them different angles. … It’s the new world order: nobody is very far away.”
Rick Barnes is a freelance writer who lives in St. John’s.