Bulletin of Dental Education

UCLA Dental Students' Humanitarian Odyssey: Bringing Smiles and Essential Care to Central American Refugees in Tijuana

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By Elbert Tom, M.P.H., D.D.S., Group Practice Director, Health Sciences Assistant Clinical Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry

In a poignant testament to the power of altruism and the unwavering commitment to humanitarian dentistry, a team of 30 University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry (UCLA SOD) dental students embarked on a transformative mission to Tijuana, Mexico. This humanitarian endeavor, conducted in collaboration with the Refugee Health Alliance (RHA) and Kids Community Dental Clinic (KCDC) in Burbank, CA, aimed to provide crucial dental care to Central American refugees navigating the complexities of seeking asylum.

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The backdrop for this noble mission was an isolated and desolate area of Baja California, where the shelter in an undisclosed location, established within the confines of a church, housed refugees in an array of bunk beds, illustrating the challenging conditions these individuals faced as they embarked on a journey toward safety and stability. Among the vulnerable population were numerous children in dire need of essential dental interventions, including extractions, cleanings, silver diamine fluoride (SDF) preventive services, fluoride administration, sealants and oral health instruction (OHI).

The UCLA dental team, armed with a sense of duty and compassion, threw themselves wholeheartedly into addressing the pressing dental needs of the community. Despite limited resources and the overwhelming demand for services, these dedicated students worked tirelessly, foregoing breaks and overcoming logistical challenges to ensure that each patient received the care they so desperately needed.

As the day unfolded, the line of residents seeking dental care seemed to lengthen, not diminish, as word spread about the vital services being offered. This underscored the stark reality of the unmet dental needs within the refugee community. Even in the face of material shortages, such as running out of essential items like gauze, the dental team demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability, finding innovative solutions to ensure the continuation of care.

Collaboration emerged as a cornerstone of the mission’s success, with students assisting each other to navigate challenges and deliver optimal care under challenging circumstances. The camaraderie and unity displayed by the dental students exemplified the transformative power of collective effort in the face of adversity.

Beyond the provision of dental services, the team brought a small ray of joy to the children by distributing a handful of toys. The palpable delight on the faces of these young individuals amidst the challenging circumstances served as a poignant reminder of the positive impact that compassionate care can have on even the most vulnerable members of a community.

The families served at the shelter, once acclimated, faced a multitude of uncertain paths. Some would continue their journey to another shelter, while others would make the arduous decision to return to their home countries or venture further north in search of safety and opportunity. The fluidity of their situations highlighted the transient nature of their circumstances and the urgent need for timely and comprehensive healthcare interventions.

For the UCLA dental students, this humanitarian mission served as a profound educational experience, transcending the confines of a traditional classroom. It became a living lesson in the true meaning of altruism, underscoring the profound impact that volunteering can have on the lives of those in need. The mission further deepened their appreciation for the knowledge and skills acquired during their dental school training, reinforcing the pivotal role of health care professionals in addressing the pressing needs of vulnerable populations.

In conclusion, the Tijuana mission undertaken by the UCLA dental students not only provided essential dental care to those in need but also left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of the entire team. It served as a powerful reminder of the transformative potential of compassionate and dedicated health care professionals, whose commitment can bring hope and healing to even the most challenging and remote corners of the world. This remarkable journey will undoubtedly shape the future practice of these dental students, instilling in them a lifelong dedication to the principles of humanitarian dentistry and the pursuit of positive change in the lives of those they serve.

Published on March 13, 2024

Courtesy of University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry

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