I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but before I knew it my wife had our family signed up for another dental mission trip. She heard about a family Christmas mission trip that was going to Panama through Maranatha.org. I must admit, when I first heard about the mission trip I had mixed feelings. Like a rope being tugged in two different directions, I was excited because the kids no longer live at home, and it would be a great time to reconnect with them over the holidays. On the other hand, I could already feel the train of sweat trickling down my back and the cold shower drenching my weary body. But then again, we’d never been to Panama. A few years back I purchased David McCullough’s audiobook, “The Path Between the Seas”. I can’t remember finishing the book, but I did hear enough of the book that I knew I wanted to visit the Panama Canal.
These mission trips are hard work. 2015 has been a very busy year for me and I was thinking to myself “I’m tired”. The idea of loading up for a dental trip was a bit overwhelming. I do want to have a good attitude and I apologize if it sounds like I’m groaning and moaning but perhaps I should explain so as to contrast with the sweetest part of the trip.
Once we were settled into our home-base, namely, Instituto Adventista Panameno in Chiriqui, the day would start at 5:30 am with my alarm clock loudly proclaiming it was time to begin another sweaty day. Normally my day starts with a cup of coffee simply because I am a creature of habit. I have my routine and I was trying to live my routine and for that reason, I did come prepared. I brought my Bialetti coffee maker and I even had most of the ingredients, all that was missing was some milk. Much to my dismay, however, after making the trek to the kitchen ready for my life’s one simple pleasure, my shoulders drooped at the sight of only a stove with industrial gas burners. There was no way my tiny Bialetti coffee was going to work on those gigantic burners. This was going to be a long week.
It went from bad to worse. When I asked the Maranatha staff for help with my coffee situation there was no sympathy. I think the general consensus was that coffee is unhealthy, and they were not going to enable my bad habits. They did agree to have hot water available at 6:15, but they wanted me out of the way by 6:30 when breakfast was served.
So I took some coffee that was designed to be brewed and treated it as instant. They had some white liquid that they were calling milk and I mixed some in. It was a NASTY way to start the day. I’m expecting that only coffee drinkers will sympathize.
Breakfast by 6:30 am, worship at 7:30 on the bus to the work site by 8:00, with every anticipated dental/medical supplies packed and ready to go to a different site every day.
Did you know the weather in Panama is hot and humid? In New England, we are starting our winter, but in Panama, they are starting their summer. The heat was continuous and unrelenting. I am from the southwest and I do appreciate warm weather, but this was a bit much for me. Our medical team was assigned one of the only busses that had air conditioning. Those were the ONLY blissful moments of the day riding on the bus to and from work with the air conditioning going full blast.
We would then go to our worksite and set up our portable dental site. As I mentioned before this was a mission trip where I would have a chance to reconnect with my kids. It was a pleasant surprise to see how much my kids have matured. They have grown up. Every once in awhile during the day, I would pause to look out and see what they were doing. They were actually all contributing. They all had such good attitude on the trip and my wife was clucking like a mother hen with her baby chicks all in tow.
Now for my sweet spot of the day.
I would interview the patient and ask them if they had any teeth that were bothering them. No rush, take a few minutes to visit with the patient find out what their needs were. I would then ask them if they had any teeth bothering them. More often than not they would point to the infected area, then they would verbalize which ones they wanted removed. We would then come to an agreement on which ones we would remove.
We also had mothers that would bring their little ones in with toothaches asking if we could help relieve their babies of the pain.
We were a well-oiled machine this year, ready to take any challenge. Some years we run solo, but this year we had help from a friend and old dental classmate Dr. Daryl Proctor.
I would then yell out my needs and have instant service. “KRISTA, CLAUDETTE, KAMI I NEED 2 RED, A GREEN AND A YELLOW. I NEED A SPOON, AN ELEVATOR AND A COW HORN”.
One of our assistants would place the tray with all the needed dental tools on the patient’s lap, and we were off and running.
DONE. “CAN SOMEONE GIVE POST OP INSTRUCTIONS IN SPANISH FOR ME PLEASE”?
Everybody knew their jobs, we were keeping score, we were pulsating as a unit. Chair 1, chair 2, chair 3, chair 4, weave and repeat.
That’s when it hit me. Service to Others
This was my best part of the day, a time where I could zone out of my insignificant perceived problems. I would focus on the needs of others. My fellow man had a need and I had something I could give that would relieve their situation. How many times have I had my wife talk to me about “service to others”. I think I’m starting to understand.
Once the workday was over I knew there was no internet back at camp, so I would have the bus driver drop me off at the town of Bugaba where I could get a few minutes of internet. Surely there were fires I needed to put out at home; interesting, I only had junk e-mails to sort through. Could it be that everyone else was enjoying their family time also? Could I disappear for a week so easily and not be missed?
Then supper and a meeting to review the day and do some socializing. And a few special minutes before bedtime with all my kids in one room laughing and chatting, enjoying each other’s company. No complaining about the oppressive heat or the thin mattresses on the floor, or the long trek to the bathroom; or the fact that I hate cold showers even in hot weather. I admit, it is refreshing once you get out, even though it makes you want to yell out when you initially immerse yourself. Exhausted and happy we fall asleep knowing tomorrow was Christmas, and we would do a repeat of today.
Are we going another mission trip? Most likely. Will there be a place to use my Bialetti? Maybe not. The buzz among all the Maranatha Volunteers was “Pathways to Health”. That sounds like fun. From what I understand they will be going to Los Angles in 2016 and Detroit in 2017. Maybe the Pathways to Health is where I’ll kick my unhealthy coffee habit; A stateside dental mission trip? That’s an interesting idea. Maybe there will be no need to pack up my Bialetti because instead, I can trade it in for a good attitude, maybe.
Norman Medina DDS, graduated from Loma Linda University Dental School in 1994. He has been practicing dentistry in Midcoast Maine since 1994. He and his wife Lanita have four children.