By Mary Daum
When Dr. Jaime Brahim was asked by his students to lead an Operation Smile mission to Hanoi, Vietnam, scheduled to begin 2 days after Christmas, he felt honored but also reluctant to leave his family during the holidays. That evening, as he told his wife the story, she convinced him it was an opportunity he could not pass up. So the NIDR oral surgeon and part-time faculty member at the University of Maryland dental school boarded a plane Dec. 27 for the first leg of the trip. The group of eight dental school students and five faculty members headed for Vietnam with the mission to provide oral surgery and routine dental care to those in need. The trip marked the second time a group from the dental school traveled to the Southeast Asian country to offer care.
"What struck me the most was the absolute friendliness of everyone we met," said Brahim of his experiences at the Plastic Center, a clinic affiliated with Hanoi Medical School. "The people don't dislike Americans at all. They are simply concerned with feeding their families and the day-to-day necessities of living." Each day, he said, patients crowded into the waiting room hoping to have their medical and dental problems addressed, grateful for the opportunity Operation Smile offered.
Operation Smile is a not-for-profit organization whose volunteers offer oral surgery, dental care instruction, and reconstructive surgery for craniofacial defects to underserved populations around the world. Founded by University of Maryland dental school alumnus Dr. William Magee, Jr., and his wife, Kathleen, the association has helped more than 43,000 patients in its 15-year history. Last year, volunteers traveled to several countries including Colombia, Honduras and Russia, in addition to offering care to people in the United States.
During the Hanoi mission, Brahim performed biopsies and removed tumors and cysts; he also supervised students who extracted teeth. While removing a salivary tumor from the mouth of one young girl, he was taken aback at how stoic she was. "During our visit we learned that parents tell their children they are lucky to be getting this care and not to make a fuss," Brahim said.
In the course of the mission, he and his students provided oral surgery for more than 80 patients. Other faculty and students rendered dental care and gave away thousands of toothbrushes, part of the large shipment of supplies the volunteers had sent in advance.
In a separate project at the clinic, plastic surgeons from Hanoi repaired approximately 20 cases of cleft lip/cleft palate a day, an effort in which Brahim participated. During the surgeries, he noticed a lack of many supplies including rudimentary items such as surgical blades that physicians in the West take for granted. "The most frustrating thing was to know you could do so much if you only had the right equipment," said Brahim. The surroundings, too, were unlike the typical conditions health professionals find in the U.S. "Patients were literally lined up on tables in the operating room, just like a scene out of M*A*S*H," he said.
Besides offering care, the American and Vietnamese teams exchanged information on medical practices and procedures in their countries. Brahim squeezed in two lectures at the medical school -- one on the oral manifestations of HIV, and another on ectodermal dysplasias, disorders characterized by a lack of teeth, hair and nails.
The volunteers returned to the U.S. on Jan. 9. Brahim was thankful he had gone. "The people were so humble, so grateful for the care they were getting," he said. "It really was a worthwhile trip." Judging from a letter the team received from one woman, the feeling was mutual. The woman, a teacher, wrote to express her gratitude at receiving help and ended her letter this way: "When I go back to my school, I will teach my pupils to love American people more, eliminate our distance in the past, and look forward to a bright future with friendship."
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