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I have been home over a week now from the medical-dental outreach trip to Bolivia, and the more I reflect on the meaning of this trip, the happier I feel about the entire experience.
I have been on nearly 40 volunteer trips in the past 29 years and mostly they were dental mission only, only the trip to the Himalayas in 2007 and this past trip to Bolivia were medical-dental mission. I feel blessed being a dentist because everywhere we go, we have patients coming all day long, the dental clinic is always busy and swamped with patients while the medical clinic sees a fraction of amount of patients comparing the our dental side. We can remove dental pain and infection in one short visit, and we can even add some dental health education and home care gift package to each patient to help them in the long run. Short term volunteer dentistry is effective and does provide concrete improvement to the local communities, this is what feed my passion. But regardless of how little we can give to our patients in such a short time and limited way, every little effort does speak of hope and healing.
In Bolivia our team went to 3 prisons in La Paz, 2 are maximum security Women's prison named Obrajes and Miraflores, and one is the famous San Pedro prison for men, the largest in La Paz with around 2,000 inmates. The prison system in Bolivia allows the women inmates to keep their young children with them while serving their time in jail, and the men can have their wives and children living with them in the "prison communities". If you read the best selling true story book Marching Powder by Rusty Young, you will really appreciate the unique prison system in Bolivia.
All of the mission trips I participated before took place in orphanages, schools of the Blinds, elementary schools and public clinics in remote villages, Bolivia was the first trip where I served inmates in prisons. Yet the whole time there I only felt a sense of community, peace, acceptance, forgiveness when I treated these patients, it felt normal like every patients I saw in my private practice or on mission trips, they are soft spoken, courteous, gentle, and grateful people.
On the first day our dental team was allow to set up clinic in a little church in the heart of the Obrajes prison. It dawn on me later that evening that when I was a kid I was in a similar little church in a prison in Vietnam. In 1975 as my family and I tried to escape South Vietnam by boat, we got caught on the beach and were put in a prison in a fishing village North of Saigon. The prison has a small chapel, our group of women and children were kept in the chapel while all the men were in locked cells. The chapel in Obrajes reminded me of my 3 weeks of prison as a kid some 40 years ago, and even though I never forget the lessons of that whole period, this past week in Bolivia renews my belief that freedom is the biggest blessing of all. The day that the communists marched into Saigon and took away the freedom we took for granted, that was when I knew what freedom was really truly like. And for the prisoners we served, I am sure there is nothing they wanted more than to be free again.
In a strange and completely unexpected way, working in the prisons is more meaningful to me as I reflect on the trip. I have so much freedom now, I am free to vote, free to live wherever I wanted, free to travel the world, free to make as much money and work as hard as I wished, or free to work as little as I wanted ... it just makes sense that people like me who enjoys so much freedom would want to share a little of my blessings to those who have none.
Another first about the Bolivia trip was that we were not allowed to bring cell phone or camera into the prison, so I didn't have many photos as I normally would loved to take on all of my volunteer trips. But I did manage to get a few photos with the help of a local friend that I can share them with you here. Many of us brought lots of toys, shoes, clothes, and toiletry items for the kids beside medication and dental supplies to donate to the inmates and the prison's dispensary. I got to work closely with 3 prison dentists and the Director of the National Penitentiary of Bolivia who also happens to be a dentist, they seemed to be earnest and compassionate so we can only hope that the gifts we left we help heal the inmates in the months to come. My dental rep at Henry Schein made a generous contribution of dental supplies and instruments for this trip, many friends donated toys, baby clothes from their children that are still in great shape, and kids shoes, these gifts made sooooo many patients very happy!
La Paz is among one of the highest cities in the world, many visitors got altitude sickness and didn't feel well while they were there. One dentist in our team (who has sickle cell anemia) had to leave to return home to the US a few days after she got there, she had to be on oxygen and felt too sick to get out of bed. Bolivia is a little larger than the state of Texas, with a population of 10 millions, Texas has 35 millions. Bolivia is the least developing country in the Andean region, and more than half of the population still live in poverty. I love seeing the different indigenous women who dress in colorful dresses and wear their little hat, there are so much beauties in every country and its citizen when we take time to look.
It was a memorable trip. Thank you for all of your friendship, encouragement and support along the way.
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