Dental hygienist helps patients in the Dominican Republic

Shannon Helleman with one of the patients her team helped in the Dominican Republic.

Stittsville’s Shannon Helleman (pictured above with a patient) spent a week in the Dominican Republic, but she didn’t go for a vacation. A dental hygienist by profession, Helleman joined Health Teams International, a Christian organization that provides individuals living in poor countries with free healthcare clinics. Last month, she was a part of an 11-person team that worked in the outskirts of Cabarete, Dominican Republic.  Christine Vezarov spoke with her recently about the experience.

Shannon Helleman (fourth from the left) and her team. Photo courtesy of Shannon Helleman
Shannon Helleman (fourth from the left) and the group from Health Teams International. Photo courtesy of Shannon Helleman

Christine Vezarov: How did you hear about these trips? Why did you want to get involved?

Shannon Helleman: Dr. Tom Harle— I’ve worked with him for years and years. He has suggested I come along to these trips several times, but I have young kids at home so it’s hard for me to be away from them for two weeks. So when this trip came up, and it was a one-week opportunity, I said I’d definitely be happy to take part.

My motivation was my faith. Jesus lived on this Earth for 33 years or so and lived for other people. He did miracles, he helped people. He hung out with the people who needed more, people who were sick, people who were outcast from society, people who were poor. So it just seems like a thing that would come naturally when God has blessed me with these talents and given me the means to achieve the education that I have.

(Dr. Tom Harle is an Ottawa-based dentist, and his team for this trip included dental hygienist Muriel Laughton as well.)

CV: What did a typical day look like for you?

SH: We’d arrive nine o’clock in the morning to a crowd of people already lined up at the clinic. Our team that organized the trip had developed a way to organize the people. She would give out numbers in the morning – different numbers for different specialties. So, a blue number for the dentist or a pink number for the doctor. She would give out as many numbers as each specialist said they could see in a day, with hopes that we’d get to them all of course.

The dentist was doing mostly just extractions because the mouths we were seeing, really there wasn’t a whole lot of point in fixing everything and our time was better served getting people out of pain.

On the doctor side of things, they saw a lot of stress injuries. The work that a lot of these people do is really heavy labour, though they get paid little and work hard so a lot of shoulder, back injuries, that sort of thing.

It was a busy time with lots of different languages happening. We had of translators and the waiting room was full of people waiting for different specialties and lots of children running around. It was a busy place but really neat to see how pleased everybody was to be there because although the health care is available there, it’s just not affordable for the average people.

CV: What were some of the challenges you and your team faced?

SH: Our location. We were operating out of an abandoned funeral parlor. It’s generally just an abandoned building. We didn’t have any running water so we’d bring water in big crates and use little pumps to pump it into cups and washing instruments. It’s very different here with running water and electricity and suction units and anything we could possibly need.

There it almost feels primal. Back to grass roots dentistry and medical work. No suction? Patient spits in a bucket on the floor. No drill? Okay, get out the hammer and chisels again.


CV: So, your team included you, a dentist, a hygienist, two vision professionals, two pediatricians, a family doctor and a nurse. What equipment did you bring with you?

SH: We brought along three suitcases full of medications. Everything from blood pressure medication to pain medication, antibiotics and children’s Tylenol.

Some things we ran out of. Anything we had left we tried to leave there with other organizations that could continue to use it for the people living in poverty in Cabarete and local areas. It’s silly to take it all back home. It’s better to leave it there for the people there in our absence.

A young boy with a rain balloon bracelet, donated by students at Stittsvile Public School. Photo courtesy of Shannon Helleman.
A young boy with a rain balloon bracelet, donated by students at Stittsvile Public School. Photo courtesy of Shannon Helleman.

CV: Tell us about the memorable experiences. What were some of your favourites?

SH: It’s just always amazing to see the people. They’re generally just so grateful to see us there… Any hurdles that we came across were quickly overpowered by our faith and our teamwork and our resiliency that I think was beyond what we’re humanly capable of.

We saw a lot of repeat patients that we’d seen the year before who maybe had a tooth out and came back. They would say, “Do you remember me?” It was fun. I pulled out my phone a couple times and pulled out pictures from the year before – “Yeah this is you!” They were just amazed.

I had this big bag of rain balloon bracelets and every time a kid would come through, I’d try to swoop a bracelet onto their wrist. The kids got a real kick out of that.

At my daughters’ school (Stittsville Public School), a bunch of kids had donated the rain balloon bracelets. I was able to share some pictures with the SPS kids to show them the kids I had given their contributions to, so it was really neat.


CV: Would you consider doing this again in the future?

 SH: Absolutely. They’re hoping to put together a team to travel again to Cabarete in 2017. I’d love to go back again. I guess for me it was just such a pleasure… to be part of a team that was really all there for the common good. It’s really an honour to go.


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