Our Trip with Health Mission Outreach Canada:
An Account of the Medical and Dental Outreach Volunteer Mission to El Salvador

Journal Article for submission to Oh Canada! E-magazine

By: Brenda Martinez and Taryn Swanton

On an early autumn morning in 2012, 35 dental and medical professionals from all across Canada gathered at Toronto Pearson International Airport. After a few short hours, we were on our way to a dental and medical mission in El Salvador. As students in our second semester in the dental hygiene program at the Canadian Academy of Dental Health and Community Sciences, we are not typically offered an opportunity of such magnitude. We jumped at the chance to participate! The amount we learned in just one short week was astounding, and we had the opportunity to make life-long friends. Overall, the experience we gained from the trip and the oral health advocacy we provided has been incredibly valuable to our professional development.

HMO’s medical and dental clinics were held from Monday to Friday, running from 8:00am until 1:00pm. A typical day for us meant waking up between 5:00am-6:00am so that we could be ready for breakfast at 7:00am. Then, we would get on the bus to travel to the ‘Centro Municipal Andalucia’ community centre. By 7:30am, we would arrive at the community center, and begin to set up the rooms and our own individual stations. Depending on if you were a dentist or dental hygienist, you would also set up the tables that supplied us with instruments, gloves, gauze, fluoride, coronal polish, and  anything else we might need.

The dental clinic was held in a large room, and each station was complete with a table and an air/water suction unit. HMO often makes the most of limited resources, and the clinic in San Salvador was no exception. Clients at the clinic sat on lawn chairs while they were having their dental work done, and computer chairs were provided for the dentists and dental hygienists to sit on. The medical clinic was held in a much smaller room with tables to triage patients. Inside, temporary rooms were set up and divided by hanging sheets. This gave medical clients privacy while they were talking to the doctor and/or nurses.

At 8:00am, we started to triage the dental clients. Soon after their paperwork was completed, they would flow into the clinic. The lawn chairs were constantly full of clients that required cleanings, extractions, and fillings. Sometimes clients needed a surgical intervention, such as a bone graft or the drainage of abscesses. The room was filled with loud and lively conversation in both English and Spanish. Unfortunately, we also heard some crying children who were fearful of anesthetic injections or extensive dental treatment.

We began our work by sterilizing instruments using two autoclaves. It was our responsibility to keep as many instruments available as possible. After sterilization, we returned the instruments to the dentist or dental hygienist. Although there was a variety of instruments available, most kits were not full; we had a high need for dental mirrors and syringes. After a while, we switched to other duties, including helping with client paperwork, translating, or assisting dentists with extractions and fillings. On most days, lunch was at 12:00pm, but not many people took the break. We normally waited until all the clients had been seen for the day, and around 3:00pm or 4:00pm we ate our lunch, which was provided by the San Salvador volunteers. Once we were done eating, we took the bus back to the hotel and to get ready for dinner at 7:30pm. We ate dinner at a variety of delicious local restaurants. On the days when the clinic finished a little earlier, we enjoyed the opportunity for some tourism. We visited the local arts and crafts markets, the San Salvador volcano, and the beach. 

The locals of San Salvador were very appreciative of HMO’s work. They were eager to receive dental and medical care, and stood outside for hours at a time when the clinics were busy. We supplied our waiting clients with water, and made sure that they could sit under the canopy while they waited.  No one complained, and in the end, we treated over 2000 patients. For us, the feeling of accomplishment was incredible because we knew that we had helped so many people. Yet we were also left with sadness. We grew to become very fond of the local people and, since we could only spend eight days in San Salvador, there were many people that we were unable to reach. All HMO’s volunteers wished that we could have reached everyone that needed dental care. As Canadians, we also became very aware of how fortunate we are and of the dental care we take for granted.

Visiting El Salvador was not only an educational experience which helped to further our professional development, but also an opportunity to raise our awareness. We got to see how people in other parts of the world live, and we got to see firsthand how wonderful the people were. This trip changed our perspectives, enriched our personal outlooks, and enabled us to gain confidence in our abilities as dental health professionals and our future. The journey with HMO was truly an experience that surpassed our expectations.

Brenda Martinez
Being from El Salvador myself, this experience is very close to my heart. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this dental outreach mission that has helped so many Salvadoreños. I would like to thank my family for all of their support and all of the kind gestures they have given to the outreach team and me. I have met incredible people that have demonstrated such compassion and humbleness in their approach to the work that they do and I feel blessed to have been a part of this adventure.”

Taryn Swanton
“At the beginning of this trip, I would have never had guessed how this experience would impact me personally. I have learned an abundance of new skills and gained knowledge about my future career. I’ve also learned a lot about myself. The people I met during this trip gave me a new perspective on life and have made me realize the importance of family, friends and healthcare.”