Dental Missioners Travel to the Southern Philippines

by Ross Anderson

When I attended a meeting at church to learn about joining a group of missioners traveling to the Philippines, I was sure to tell the organizers that I was an orthodontist--not an oral surgeon--so I wouldn't be able to extract teeth (which I had most recently performed 17 years ago). I figured that the best use of my time would be to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity. I was told that there were however, enough builders, and what they needed were dentists. I found myself in a situation like Jonah and the whale ... not having an option that I liked. Many residents of the Habitat village in Bajumpandan had never been to the dentist resulting in large cavities which required extraction. When I found out that my former dental instructor, Dr. Bob Swarts, was also planning to go, I decided I could do some extractions, being that Bob could "bail me out" if I had trouble with a procedure. I disassembled one of my old chairs, and had it packed in a custom wooden crate, transporting it on the airplane around the world to the Philippines.

We also took a folding dental chair and plenty of extraction forceps, as well as anesthetic syringes, pain medications and other items. After flying to Manila via Tokyo, which took about 12 hours, we stayed overnight and then took a 1.5 hour flight south to Dumaguete. Somehow, all of the equipment made it, and we were ready to start on Monday morning. An air compressor was purchased in the Philippines a month earlier to run the dental handpiece. After breakfast, we were driven to the medical clinic at Bajumpandan. We had a morning prayer and a meeting to meet everyone. Bob used the folding chair in the backroom, and I was set up in the front. The greatest need of most of our patients was extraction, usually involving a "bombed out" lower first molar. The patients were all cooperative and had a high pain tolerance. After the patient was seated, we asked, "Asa ang sakit?" (Where does it hurt?). Usually it was one of the molars, which required a mandibular block anesthetic, numbing the entire side of the lower jaw.

About this time, I noticed a group of local people watching the dental procedures through the open back window and chattering among themselves. I learned that this type of communal interaction is part of the culture, and the patients didn't mind a bit. A local woman, who was a dentist, joined us for the day and showed me how to use the forceps in the proper way. This method took only a minute or two to loosen and remove the molar. After finishing a couple of patients, it was time for "snacks" of fruit or bread.

Filipinos are rightly proud of their fresh, luscious mangos, and this was often part of snack time. The clinic shut down for snacks, so I would take a walk on the front gravel drive and would often encounter someone walking their goat or a peddler selling something like steamed corn-on-the-cob. Many chickens would be pecking around and wold often slip into the clinic for a quick check. In the rear of the clnic I noticed in the neighbor's yard a big pig tied on a long leash. After a few months of fattening, it would have a place on the table during a family pig roast.

We had Wednesday afternoon off, as our hosts wanted to take us to a local park for lunch. We continued our work on Thursday and Friday, and had a meeting with the city officials at a Chinese restaurant. The Filipino culture values certificates and awards and in keeping with this, we all received a certificate to commemorate our time of service. The next day, we said our farewells and packed up our bags for the trip back to Manila and then to the U.S.

The Philippines Mission Task Force kept active when we got back home, meeting monthly in 2022 and 2003, and putting on fundraisers such as a rummage sale at the church and later offering a Filipino pig roast held at the church. Bob also had the idea of sponsoring an expansion of the medical clinic by adding on two rooms set up for dental treatment. I made the floor plans by measuring a colleagues' office in Michigan and had an architect in the Philippines make the final drawings. The contruction project proceeded normally. Then when I heard that th egroup was planning another trip to Dumaguete in 2004, I talked with Bob Swarts about making a second trip, this time having his wife, Kathy, also a dentist, come along to join the team. Kathy and Bob were interested in learning more about Japan, so Kathy organized a trip for us in Japan, scheduled during the return trip to the U.S.

Back to our arrival in Dumaguete: when we got there, most of the work in setting up the new clinic was already done. I was happy to meet a new nurse, who had recently been hired at the Habitat clinic, by the name of Kathy Joyce Baliad Teatro. I found myself asking Kathy many questions, including where to find certain instruments and supplies. Before we would return to Manila, Kathy, who I learned was single, had several meetings together to learn about each other's native countries and each other's life stories. (This would go on to include five other trips to visit nurse Kathy, ... who became my wife on June 6, 2005, in Ann Arbor!)

In the meantime, I was decided to do some restorations, or fillings, rather than just extractions. Bob and Kathy S. and I developed a good referral network - Bob doing the difficult surgical extractions, Kathy doing moderate extractions, referring the surgical procedures to Bob, or if not needing extraction, referring to me for a silver filling. However, if my filling went too deep due to extensive decay, I would refer back to Bob or Kathy for an extraction.

We had quite a few interesting cases. I remember removing about five root stumps from the upper front area on one woman. On a typical 14 year old, the 6-year molars were usually already "bombed out," that is, they had large cavities involving the tooth pulp. But if I ran into one that had a smaller cavity, I would put in a silver filling to save the tooth. I also remember having to extract an upper front central incisor on a 15 year old girl, the decay being too large to save the tooth. Fortunately, the second lateral incisor was located right behind the extracted central tooth (due to crowding), and on a return trip, I was able to twork with Kathy to put a large white "veneer" on the tooth, making it look like the incisor that had been extracted. One man had a decayed "mesiodens" which is an extra middle tooth in the center of the upper teeth. I had to remove it due to decay, but it left him with a five-millimeter space in the top front teeth.

Bob, Kathy, and I went on to Japan the next week travelling to Hiroshima by train, visiting the Peace Museum, and going to Osaka where there were interesting old temples and other structures. The Japanes people managed to communicate with us with facial expresssions and hand gestures. On the train to Tokyo, the folks on the train were sure to point out Mount Fuji, of which they were very prod, by pointing and smiling. All in all, we had a very enjoyable trip both to the Philippines and Japan. We later hosted a junion-level exchange student from Japan and were able to visit the Philippines when our son Gavin was 13 months old and again at 14 years old. Kathy keepsin contact with family members in Leyte including a brother and sister, many of whom we visited during our 2022 trip.