By Leslie Terrell
Many parents have to coax, prod, and plead with their children to brush their teeth. But there was none of that last spring when Jeannie Petty gave toothbrushes to more than 500 Mayan children and demonstrated the correct way to brush to the crowd of eager learners.
Fulfilling a dream she’d had since she was 8 years old, the 2006 UTHSC College of Allied Health Sciences dental hygiene graduate spent a week in Belize on a medical–dental mission serving the Mayan population. Petty remembers watching her dad, a dentist, depart on annual mission trips to Belize when she was a child.
“I always wanted him to take me with him. I loved listening to all of his stories about the children and the people when he came back. He told me that when I got older I would be a great helper. Of course that just solidified the fact that I was going to go with him.”
A country the size of Massachusetts, Belize borders the Caribbean Sea in Central America, between Guatemala and Mexico. When Petty and her dad flew into Belize City from Nashville, they exchanged chilly temperatures for the hot and humid tropics. From Belize City, the group took an eight-passenger plane to the country’s interior, then rode an old school bus into the town of San Antonio, where walking is the primary mode of transportation.
“Most of the coastline is touristy, but the jungle area is still very primitive,” Petty says. “I kept hearing that we would be staying in a hotel.” But she hadn’t seen a hotel like this before.
“As I looked around my living quarters, I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but the funny thing is that by the next afternoon, I felt like I was staying at the Ritz! I may have had to shower outside with about as much water as a water fountain can give off, but I wasn’t sleeping on a mud floor with a straw roof overhead and chickens coming in and out of my room.”
When the Mayfair Church of Christ mission team comes to Belize every year, school is dismissed for a week, and the classrooms are transformed into a temporary dental clinic. Most of the population speaks Mopan Mayan, a language similar to Spanish.
“The school-aged children knew English,” Petty says, “but most of the adults knew little or none at all.” The language barrier had Petty’s team discussing the needs and problems of the adults with their children.
The clinic opened at 8 a.m. and closed around 5 or 6 every evening. “I usually woke up to the sound of roosters and old trucks driving into the village to drop off people, about four-thirty or five in the morning,” Petty says. “It was quite a social event. They bring their lunches and pretty much stay the whole day out in the blistering heat. A family set up a little concession stand from the back of their truck right next to the registration area. Mothers kept their babies wrapped in lots of blankets, and they carried them like little papooses.”
Petty observed that although the Mayans’ interest in dental care has increased over the years, less than half request dental services. “After having this clinic for more than twenty years, the needs of the people have changed. In our clinic we had three folding chairs set up for extractions, two homemade dental chairs set up for dental surgery, and two chairs dedicated to cleanings. The hygiene chairs were always full. The people now want to come to the clinic for a cleaning even if they aren’t having any symptoms. When my dad first started going, the dental clinic was outside with a tarp put up to block some of the sun. They mainly just shucked [pulled] teeth all week. There was so much to do that cleanings were not even an option. Now patients are interested in saving their teeth, if possible, and they have the equipment to accommodate amalgam fillings. We even did a few root canals.”
People who stood outside waiting to be seen had their children with them. If a woman was nursing her baby and her name was called, Petty said she just continued to nurse through the entire session. “It was kind of shocking at first, but I didn’t think anything of a baby being nursed while a mother was having a tooth pulled in a folding chair. We saw mainly adults inside the dental clinic because toothaches were a high priority for the parents. If their children weren’t hurting, they didn’t get them a paper to get their teeth cleaned. I realized what was happening by the second day because I would see all these small children running around but they would never be in our clinic.”
Petty began to draw a crowd when she stood outside the clinic door and offered to teach the children to brush their teeth.
“On my breaks, I stood outside and talked to the children while trying to catch a little of the breeze. I knew we had plenty of supplies, but there were too many children for individual cleanings,” said Petty. She wasn’t sure if her idea of a mass tooth-brushing lesson would go over, but she decided to give it a try.
Lining them in a row, she passed out toothbrushes and then put toothpaste on each brush, asking for a volunteer to demonstrate the technique. “I had them all brush for two minutes, and I went down the row to help each one. I then handed them each a paper cup with water to rinse and spit. After the tooth-brushing lesson, I painted all their teeth with single-dose cavity varnish. By the time I was done with one session, I had another crowd waiting. I made a lot of buddies that week,” said Petty.
The children were very interested and curious, she said. “They were all very polite and would wait outside the open doors of our clinic till I came out to talk to them. By about the second day I started hearing my name called out as I walked from the hotel to the clinic. Little voices rang through the doors of dirt-floor thatched huts. Everywhere I walked in the village, I was surprised that the children knew my name. They came and asked if they could have a toothbrush; I told them to come to the dental clinic, and I would give them lessons first.”
At the end of the week, Petty couldn’t remember what air conditioning felt like, but it didn’t seem that important anymore. “My perspective changed so much. It was hot and muggy awake or asleep, but I would go back in a heartbeat,” she says. Whenever she started to the trash pile with an empty supply box, the children asked to take the boxes home. “You would have thought I had given them an ice-cream cone the way their faces lit up,” says Petty, who gave away many boxes that week.
Petty, a dental hygienist in Brentwood, Tennessee, enjoys living close to her Tullahoma family. “I’m close enough that I can work for my dad whenever he can’t find a substitute,” she says. “I work three days a week for a general dentist and one day a week for a prosthodontist.” She helps with an inner-city program of her church and also enjoys the outdoors.
“I love hiking and backpacking. My dad and I have hiked the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. I’ve run several half-marathons, and my mom and sister and I are planning to walk the Music City half-marathon in April.”
The mission trip to Belize was a proud addition to Petty’s list of volunteer efforts. “These experiences helped me to see the opportunities that could arise just because of my profession. I knew it was going to open doors for me to help educate and care for those who are often overlooked.”
The College of Allied Health Sciences’ dental hygiene program prepared Petty on many levels for her journey to Belize. “While I was at UTHSC, I got a lot out of the different rotation sites. I loved going into the schools and cleaning students’ teeth.” She also worked around West Tennessee at the Church Health Center in Memphis, with Smiles and Blessings in Jackson, and at S.A.Y. Yes in West Memphis.
“I came home every week overwhelmed with how some kids here in America are living in survival mode and don’t get the attention and care they need and deserve. Many of the children I worked with in Belize were not all that different from some of the kids here in the states. I realize now that anywhere I go, there will always be people who are in need.”