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U.S. Navy Dentists Treat Residents of Indonesian City

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

MEULABOH, Indonesia, Jan. 15, 2005 – There's a new doctor in town and he goes by "Dr. GiGi" or, literally, Dr. Teeth.

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Lt. (Dr.) Jillian Martin checks Reza, 12, for swollen lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes would indicate that infection from an abscessed tooth had gone beyond the tooth. Reza's father brought him to the hospital in Meulaboh, Indonesia, to see one of the two dentists that make up a five-person dental team. He did have an abscessed tooth, but left with only medicine. Martin, a doctor with the MEU Service Support Group 15 dental team, acts as the team's medical liaison. MSSG is a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Patients weren't the only ones who wanted to see Dr. GiGi, though. That first day, the windows filled with curious on-lookers as the dentists went to work, performing mostly exams and extractions of damaged teeth, said Lt. Dan Grossman, the USS Bonhomme Richard's dentist.

"It's been great," Grossman said. "We don't speak the same language, but the smile on their faces when you take that tooth out that's been hurting (is gratifying)." Interacting with the local population in this tsunami-stricken city has given him a new outlook on life, he said.

The team's tenure at the hospital is short. Arriving on Jan. 13, they began getting the dental suite ready for use. "We've been cleaning (the suite) every day," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Romell Richardson, the dental technician. But cleaning was only one part of the preparation. Everything had to be sterilized as well -- not an easy task in a place where drinking bottled water is recommended.

"You've just got to overcome," Richardson said. And they have.

Grossman had hoped for a better turnout on the team's second day at the hospital. Though it was a longer day, it was much slower, with only about five patients. It was determined that the low turnout was because Friday is a Muslim day of prayer, and a large portion of the population is Muslim. The numbers jumped to around 15 today, Grossman said.

Lt. Jillian Martin, a doctor with the MEU Service Support Group 15, part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from the BHR, plays a slightly different role in the team. "I've been acting as a sort of medical liaison," said Martin, who is a general practitioner.

When she and a small medical team talked to Indonesian government officials, they were told that medical personnel was plentiful. So she assists the dentists from a medical standpoint.

When 12-year-old Reza's father brought him in complaining of an aching tooth, Martin used a few simple phrases and some charades to determine what the problem was. Reza's father thought Reza had an abscessed tooth, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. "I don't feel many lymph nodes," Martin said after checking the boy. If there was an infection and it had spread further, this wouldn't be the case.

Reza's father was right, though. His son did have an abscessed tooth that needed to be removed. However, he negotiated for "medicine only." When he heard he'd been spared the pliers, Reza smiled in relief and gladly took the antibiotic and pain killer.

"They'll come in while they're in pain (and) get meds," Hamlin said. "And when the pain goes away, they'll come back and have the tooth pulled."

It's a common misconception among the local people that if a tooth is pulled while they're in pain, they'll get an infection, Hamlin said. Mostly, he said, they're in pain because the tooth is dead.

"It's tough, because the oral hygiene is so poor," Hamlin said. Care of "gigi" in Indonesia, he added, tends to be less about prevention than about fixing problems after they occur.

The mission of providing dental care to the residents of Meulaboh is not done in ideal conditions, but the team members were pleased with what they found. The biggest problems were the lack of suction, which meant that someone, most likely Richardson or dentalman Seaman Donell Ellis, has to stand by with gauze to blot away anything that may need blotting.

Sterilization of instruments is probably one of the biggest obstacles. Without modern methods to clean the implements, the team is making do by scrubbing them with scouring pads and soaking them in sterilization solutions, Hamlin said.

Unfortunately, sterilization is not the only roadblock to doing the job; the language barrier is another obstacle. Members of the Singapore army located at the hospital were able to do some interpreting for the team. "This is the biggest barrier communication," Hamlin said.

Even though they've only been here a couple of days, the team has made an impact with the locals. Emi and Hendry, two children who took to hanging around the dental clinic when the team was there, brought in fresh green coconuts.

Perhaps the best example of the impact the team made on the locals was summed up in the story of one 8-year-old boy who had to have a painful tooth pulled. He walked out with his father, head down and arms folded across his chest. His answer to the question, "Better?" was a single solemn nod of his head. "He was a real trooper," Hamlin said.

After being picked up and deposited on a roof by a tsunami wave, a trip to the dentist is child's play.

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Related Sites:
DoD Special Report on Tsunami Relief Efforts

Click photo for screen-resolution imageEight-year-old Azwir's father brought him to the dental clinic at the hospital in Meulaboh, Indonesia, for treatment of a toothache. The boy's father asked that no teeth be pulled as part of that treatment. Though Navy Lt. Chris Hamlin, one of two dentists with the MEU Service Support Group 15, a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said several teeth needed to come out, Azwir and his father left with medicine for the pain. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Seaman Donell Ellis scrubs a set of dental instruments used by Navy dentist Lt. Chris Hamlin to pull a patient's tooth. Sterilizing the instruments the way they would be onboard a ship or in an office stateside is not an option in Meulaboh, Indonesia. Instead, the tools are scrubbed and put through sterilization solutions. Ellis is part of a five-person dental team with the MEU Service Support Group 15, a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy dentist Lt. Chris Hamlin watches as his first patient of the day, Umar, picks up his tooth that Hamlin extracted. Hamlin is part of a five-person dental team with the MEU Service Support Group 15, a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The team is operating a dental clinic at the hospital in Meulaboh, Indonesia. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy dentist Lt. Chris Hamlin works to extract a tooth from his first patient of the day at the dental clinic at the hospital in Meulaboh, Indonesia. Hamlin is part of a five-person dental team with the MEU Service Support Group 15, a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChris Hamlin, left, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Romell Richardson, a dental technician, talk with Hendry, right and Emi. The "tweens" have become friendly with the five-person dental team that is operating a clinic in the hospital in Meulaboh, Indonesia. The team is with the MEU Service Support Group 15, a part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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