Makaela’s dad is a dentist and regularly travels to Haiti to offer his services to people there who are living without dental care. One year, after returning home from a week-long trip, he mentioned that he wanted her to join his next visit there. So, for a week during her senior year of high school, she served as a dental assistant in Haiti.
Our departure date in March of 2013 couldn’t come soon enough. I was so excited to work as my dad’s chairside assistant and meet and serve people in a developing country.
As the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti is still suffering from the effects of a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. More than half of the people in Haiti live on less than $2.41 a day; three-quarters of those who live in Haiti’s cities live in a slum.
Cleaning teeth may not have been the most important thing we could offer people in need there, but it wasn’t an insignificant thing to do, either. We were sharing what we could — our expertise and time and energy.
A month before leaving, my dad said we were going to pack one suitcase full of dental equipment, with some pieces worth more than $1,000. That suitcase was going to get us through five days of cleaning the mouths of 200 nursing students. That left only backpacks for my dad and I to use for our personal belongings. My pack list was simple: two scrub outfits, a hairbrush, toothpaste, toothbrush, and a book to read at nighttime.
“You will see things here that you have never seen back home,” my dad said as he prepared me for what I was about to experience.
Even after the seven vaccinations it took to prepare to travel to Haiti, I still wasn’t ready for what I saw when we arrived. Trash was piled up in the streets and clogged rivers. Women were washing their dirty clothes in the filthy streams. There was little to no electricity, and safety was a constant concern, especially at night.
Even though we were there to encounter and serve people in need, we were privileged to stay in a house within a small gated community built by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Hot water and air conditioning were non-existent, and we slept inside bed nets because there was (and still is) a high rate of malaria. It was flabbergasting to think that most Haitians faced worse conditions every single day.
The work day
From the house, we walked to the nursing school where the students were waiting for us. The day started at 7 a.m., and usually went until 5 p.m. or later — however long it took to get the job done. We cleaned more than 40 students’ mouths per day. A classroom became our dental office. A reclining beach chair became the dental chair. We didn’t have a suction device for whenever the patient had to spit, so we improvised with a kidney dish. The other tools we could bring were an explorer, a mouth mirror, a scaler, and a drill.
While assisting my dad, I learned how to speak Creole from a student who spoke enough English for us to make conversation. I still remember how to say “spit” (krache) and “open your mouth” (louvri bouch ou).
Even though they were in their 20s, most students were terrified because they had never had their teeth cleaned before. A typical examination included multiple cavities. One woman had 13 cavities and needed to have five teeth extracted later on by the local dentist because we did not have the correct supplies for those procedures. I wondered how these students had been getting along with so many problems with their teeth — if the pain was interrupting their studies.
One hour on the streets
In the middle of the week, we decided to take a 30-minute lunch and go out for an hour and explore what was beyond the closed, guard-protected barricades.
Once we were on the other side, we immediately felt eyes on us. Everyone seemed afraid of the people in scrubs — they watched our every move. Nearby was a young woman in a white plastic chair holding her daughter. My dad and I could tell they had gone too long without food or drink.
There was a small cart nearby serving Sprite and Coke; we paid 50¢ for two drinks. While handing them to the mother, I saw her frown turn into a smile. Her eyes lit up and with the little energy that remained, she spoke while tearing up: “Mèsi, mèsi.” Her daughter then got out of her mother’s arms and for the next few minutes, she and I played hide-and-go-seek.
It was such a small thing to buy someone a Coke and spend a few minutes playing, but it led to a deep experience of joy that we all shared. You should have seen the girl’s smile and heard her laugh.
On the last day of our visit, the students threw a big celebration for our team. A round table was filled with delicious food. The 200 students sang in creole, which made us tear up. They gave gifts to our team, including hand-carved objects for my dad and me.
One student who didn’t speak to us nor smile the entire week told our student translator to have my dad and I wait for her until the end of the day because she had a surprise for us. We became a bit worried she wouldn’t make it as our departure time approached. Finally, she rode in on a moped, and then presented us with two handmade sand mosaics: one of a map of Haiti and the other of a heart framed with the words, je t’aime. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Thank you for everything.”
Dad and I were surprised to hear her voice, but we exchanged smiles and laughs. She then hugged us both and said that she wanted to give us these gifts because we had given her the greatest gift. It seemed like a small action for us to take to clean her teeth, but it allowed her to laugh and smile freely, which meant more than we realized.
The Haitians we served were living in poverty, but they lived with generosity and gratitude. They touched my life, and inspire me to live with abundance regardless of the possessions or comforts I have. Haiti was a place of material deprivation, yes, but the people there helped me see it as a place filled with love as well.
On our way back to the U.S., my dad asked me if I was excited to go home. “No,” I said. “I want to go back to Haiti.”