“The painkiller isn’t working. We need painkiller in the dental clinic.”
It’s our first day at the medical mission in Tierra Linda, Guatemala. The request for painkiller reminds me of a factoid a friend told me a few weeks ago: One of the top reasons given for suicide in developing nations is toothaches. Poet Robert Burns described toothaches as “the hell of all diseases.”
I skitter to a building at the opposite end of the school compound and help fold donated clothes. I hope like heck they find painkiller that kills pain.
After 4000 pounds of clothes have been folded, bagged and distributed, I drop into the optical clinic. They ask me to get Visine from the medical clinic. No Visine. I return empty-handed. The American helper, an administrator in real life, says to me, “I may look like an optometrist, but I only play one in Guatemala.” This becomes a running gag.
I sweep up trash. Then I spend hours meting out crayons and pages torn from coloring books to kids whose parents are waiting to be seen by a doctor or nurse. The children cluster around me, tap my arm and hiss “Sssssht! Sssssht!” to get my attention. It works in any language. With exaggerated gestures and expressions, I praise their work or send them back to color in the characters’ faces.
I check in on the optical clinic again. They’re fine. The dental clinic is behind this room. A child is ululating in agony. The caterwauling rips through the stifling air and pierces our hearts.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving when my family will ask what I did in Guatemala. “Fold clothes, sweep trash, color with kids,” I’ll say.
I signed up for a mission trip to stretch out of my comfy existence. To quit living small. . . .
To get to the dental clinic, you turn right at the optical clinic, walk past the row of latrines and the rain barrel, step over the native women’s bars of communal soap, trod up concrete stairs where jungle vines and lush trees encroach, and enter an open-air room that resembles a makeshift cage at a roadside zoo.
Using a small brush, greenish compound and plastic tubs of water, my roommate is sterilizing sadistic-looking pliers and metal syringe casings that look like they belong in an auto mechanic’s garage, not a dental clinic. Her sneakered feet sit in a puddle of water. Beside her is a liter coke bottle filled with a macabre midden: extracted teeth . . . gobbets of pink flesh cling to their roots.
“Is there something I can do?” I ask Christian. An engineer by profession, he loves helping dentists at missions.
“Put on these gloves.”
The latex gloves bunch up on my sweaty fingers. I tug and pull.
Christian picks up a shiny metal implement. He shows me how to insert a capsule of painkiller into the metal casing, twist it, pierce the seal on the bottom of the capsule, screw a capped needle into the top, remove the cap, push the plunger lightly until droplets of painkiller squirt out the needle, then screw the cap back on without pricking myself. It takes several tries before I get it right.
Only a few feet away from me, the hulking Guatemalan dentist bellows, “Don’t bite me!” He’s hunched over his patient. He yanks – once, twice, three times. Out comes a molar.
My roommate has sterilized a pile of pliers. The business ends of these are configured to fit around teeth of varying shapes and sizes. I arrange the pliers according to size the way Christian showed me. I hold up the heftiest pair of tooth extractors. “I don’t know where to put this one,” I tell Christian.
“That’s the doctor’s.” He hands the tool to the dentist. Dave, another team member, aims a light into a woman’s mouth. Back home, Dave rents storage units to folks who’ve got lots and lots of stuff to store. The dentist begins mining in the woman’s mouth.
She’s writhing. She waves her hand as a desperate signal for the dentist to stop.
“No! I’m not stopping,” the dentist thunders. “Take it like a man!”
I fight off a tingly sensation that in the past preceded blacking out.
Christian takes apart the syringes I’d assembled. He disposes the capsules of painkiller. I peel my gloves off and toss them into the trash on top of squares of bloody gauze. We’re done.
Over turkey and stuffing I’ll tell my family, “I may look like a dental hygienist, but I just play one in Guatemala.”