In Hanoi, Operation Smile Dentists: University of Maryland dental students and teachers are taking their skills to the children of Vietnam for two weeks.

December 28, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Jade Nguyen is returning this week to Vietnam, the country she and her family fled 22 years ago, to provide a rare service in her former homeland -- dental care.

Nguyen, 27, is one of two dozen University of Maryland Dental School students and faculty members who left yesterday to spend two weeks in Hanoi giving basic dental care to more than 500 Vietnamese.

"I'm excited to be able to go and help children who don't have these services," said Nguyen, a dental hygiene student whose only other trip to Vietnam was in 1994 as a tourist. "I'm not just going and spending lots of money and seeing things, but I'm giving them something they really need."

This marks the second year that a group from the dental school has traveled to Hanoi to provide free dental care and work with the University of Hanoi to train Vietnamese professors and students.

The trip is sponsored by Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization based in Norfolk, Va., that initially provided free corrective surgery on children with deformities. It specializes in cleft lips and palates, hand and foot deformities, burns and facial tumors.

The co-founder of Operation Smile, Dr. William P. Magee Jr., is a graduate of the Maryland dental school. His oldest son, Dr. William Magee, graduated from the school in the spring. The younger Magee organized the trips to Hanoi as a way to expand Operation Smile's services beyond plastic surgery.

"We're going to be seeing lots of people who have never been to the dentist before, who have never had a cavity filled," said Wendy Schoenberg, 25, a senior who traveled to Hanoi on the training trip and oversaw many of the details for the mission that began this weekend.

"Last year, there were children we saw who had never seen floss before. They didn't even know what it is."

For the dental school students, the trip to Hanoi will be more than just a chance to help the Vietnamese. Many also are looking forward to caring for many more patients than they would see in their typical clinical training. The trip will help fulfill their school requirement for workplace experience.

"In school, we're only seeing one patient every three hours," said senior Kara Gallagher, 27. "With this, we're going to see 10 times as many patients. We're just going to get to do so much more."

The working conditions will be far from the ideal of the university. The group has shipped six large crates and 15 television-size boxes of donated dental materials that include everything from floss and gauze to sterilization equipment and bright lights. They expect to give away 10,000 toothbrushes during their two weeks.

To be sure, the dental school instructors will be keeping a close eye on the students' work -- and they'll also be helping the University of Hanoi set up its own Western-style dental school. The only dentists in Vietnam are medical school graduates who decide to get extra, dental training.

Teaching and learning

"I'm looking forward to being able to pass along my skills to others," said Dr. Jaime S. Brahim, a senior oral and maxillofacial surgeon at the National Institutes of Health and part-time member of the Maryland dental school faculty.

"I was hesitant to go and leave our three children, but my wife told me that it was an opportunity to do a good deed that I couldn't let go past," Brahim said.

Language barriers are a concern of most of the students and faculty members, though they're told that translators will be around to help.

Even Nguyen -- who speaks Vietnamese -- worries that she may have trouble when she speaks at schools about proper dental care because her accent is from south Vietnam and Hanoi is in north Vietnam.

"The language may be a little hard, but I think it's going to work out," said senior Chet Daulet, 25.

"We're there to help teach them, but we're also there to learn from what they do, so we're not going to let language get in the way," Daulet said.

Since being founded in 1982 by the elder Magee and his wife, Kathleen, Operation Smile volunteers have helped more than 40,000 children.

The elder Magee, a plastic surgeon, and Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker, began the organization after participating in a medical mission to the Philippines and seeing so many children with deformities who couldn't be helped because of a lack of medical resources.

Operation Smile volunteers now make regular missions to provide free corrective plastic surgery to children in at least 15 developing countries, including Thailand, Kenya, Ecuador and China.

More recently, the organization has expanded its efforts to the United States, setting up community programs to screen children for facial and other deformities and provide surgery and other services for those who can't afford it.

Baltimore chapter

In Baltimore, 28 children and young adults have been helped by the 2-year-old program sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Chapter of Operation Smile. The local chapter has raised $250,000 in the past three years and aims to raise another $250,000 by the end of next year, said Linda Ryan, the chapter's board vice chairwoman.

Operation Smile's connections to Maryland don't end with the Maryland dental school and the chapter's outreach programs.

William Magee, the co-founder of Operation Smile, is a 1966 graduate of Mount St. Mary's College. He and his wife received the college Founder's Medal in 1993.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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