Helping Restore Smiles for 26 Years and Counting

10 September 2015

MGB150325_ROBBIE_LERMA_DENTAL_STEVE_LERMA_ANESTHESIA_PROVIDER_JF0002 (1)Dental hygienist Robbie Lerma and her husband have served with Mercy Ships for twenty-six years! Robbie is the Dental Team Supervisor onboard the hospital ship, the Africa Mercy.

Why is Mercy Ships so addictive? Robbie says, “Well, it’s nice that I don’t have to cook if I don’t want to.” It’s true. She forgot to mention the fact that it’s also nice that most of crew don’t have to do dishes, either.

But there’s much more to it than that. When asked to name her favorite part of serving, she replied, “The people … when they come in and have a tooth problem … just seeing their smiles when they leave … they’re just feeling so much better … seeing the results and the difference we can make by relieving their pain that they’ve been in for such a long time.

MGB150122_DENTAL_CLINIC_KK0027In Madagascar, where Mercy Ships is currently serving, there are only 2 dentists for every 100,000 people. Most of the dentists are in large cities. The locally available dental care can be inadequate or expensive. The resulting dental situation is devastating.*

Robbie describes the difference in dental health in Madagascar as compared to the USA: “There’s really no comparison … their [the people in Madagascar] teeth are quite broken down, and they mainly just have their roots left, so they have probably been in some pain for a while. They haven’t been able to go anywhere, and I think some of the local dentists don’t use anesthetic, so the patients are a little wary of going to get that taken care of. I’ve been in several countries, West African countries, and to me, Madagascar has some of the worst teeth that I’ve seen … they have a larger number of teeth we have to remove from each patient because they’re so decayed. Even small children, a lot of their baby teeth are just all decayed down to the gum line.

MGB150122_DENTAL_CLINIC_KK0038Sometimes, a simple problem that would have been treated early in a country with adequate dental resources will grow into a life-threatening, surgery-requiring condition. Robbie states, “The needs are pretty great here.” The desperation is obvious in the hundreds who turn up for screening every Monday and Thursday.

Little Tsiky and her father don’t live far away, but they chose to arrive at 3 a.m. when the sky was still dark to make sure that they had a place in line.

Tsiky, who suffers from several rotten teeth, is often in pain. This hurts her father, who says, “When it became serious, she could not stand. Before, it was painful only when she was eating. Later, when she is tired after school for example, it is painful … really painful. As a parent, I’m sad. Not only sad – sometimes I don’t know what to do because giving her a lot of medicine is bad for her. I don’t know if she would be able to stand the pain if I bring her to a simple local dentist. That’s why we came when we heard about Mercy Ships. We were sure that these people would do their job perfectly.”

MGB150122_DENTAL_CLINIC_KK0078Robbie is responsible for selecting patients from the line. When Tsiky was chosen for tooth extraction, her father said, “We are happy to be here because we’ve waited for a long time for something like this.

Tsiky is one of over 5,000 patients whom our dental team treated in approximately 6 months during the 2014-15 Madagascar Field Service. The Mercy Ships Dental Team worked hard, providing over 22,000 dental procedures, over 950 clinical dental hygiene services, over 360 dentures, and dental education. They provided hope in the form of free extractions, restorations, cleaning and certain types of oral surgery.

Dental educator/counselor Comfort Yeboah (GHA) educates every one of our patients about causes of dental problems, and what they can do to prevent or lesson the severity of these problems.

MGB150122_DENTAL_CLINIC_KK0071Robbie says, “Comfort teaches them how to brush their teeth, the right foods to eat. They do have a high-sugar diet here … she has heard that some feed their babies sweetened condensed milk … so they’re eating a lot of foods that contribute to decay in their teeth.

Providing dental education is a way for Mercy Ships to establish a legacy that propagates itself even after the ship leaves. “Hopefully, this will give them tools they can use to teach the rest of their family, or can teach other people maybe they go to church with, school with … overall, I think the teaching is one of the best things we do,” Robbie explains.

Tsiky’s father says, “The medical care is excellent, and you receive us nicely! Thank you very much! It’s a really big happiness for us to have Mercy Ships because we have less worry.”

MGB150409_RR3622_SMILIES_DENTAL_JF0003However, there is still much to be done. Robbie says, “Each time I go out for screening, I just pray and ask God to show me the ones He wants me to pick because there’s many more than we can actually see. There will always be a line … no matter how we do, there will always be a line.

Having more dental health volunteers – dentists, dental assistants, dental hygienists – would enable Mercy Ships to help more people.

To all potential volunteers, Robbie says, “You wouldn’t regret coming. You would have an awesome experience. You work with a great team of people. You would really be helping a lot of people with their dental needs. They [the volunteers] would be a blessing to the patients, but the patients would be a blessing to them. Most volunteers, when they come, they want to come back again.

MGB150226_DENTAL_MENTORING_ZAKOLY_ROBBIE_LERMA_KK0001Tsiky’s father adds, “My words for all of the sponsors would be simple: your work, what you’ve done until now, is awesome. We hope that it will continue. We would like to see you back soon to do more good work like you do now.

Because of Robbie and the dental team, there are a multitude of smiles in Madagascar that exist now that didn’t before. Fittingly, we discovered that Tsiky’s name means “smile” in Malagasy!

Just think, YOU could be the reason for thousands of people to smile.