TURNERS FALLS, Mass. (AP) — After working all year as a dental hygienist, Heather Lonergan of Turners Falls takes her vacations in Ghana — taking care of children and their teeth.
Not much of a real vacation, you might think, until, as she says, you see the faces of children who may have never seen a toothbrush in their lives.
"Once you do it, you're hooked," says Lonergan. "It changes your whole life, your whole perspective."
In August, Lonergan will be making her fourth trip to Ghana in the past three years, bringing loads of toothbrushes, mouthwash and other needed items with her.
"When I decided to start doing this, I did a ton of research on the Internet. I wanted to find a small grassroots group to work with. I knew I wanted to do something in Africa, and I chose Ghana and the Volta Aid Foundation."
Volta is the name of a region of Ghana and the VAF is a volunteer-based nonprofit group that places volunteers from all over the world into schools, orphanages, clinics and medical centers. "They try to do a lot of outreach programs, such as screening for diabetes and high blood pressure in villages where there's very little access to health care," she said. Many village dwellers needing health care have a two-hour walk to a main highway, where they can wait for a public bus to take them to a medical center or hospital in a town.
Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast, became independent in 1957.
Among the things Lonergan has done on her visits has been to give malaria education, and to visit people living in "The Cured Lepers Community." Although curable, many living there had suffered from blindness, deafness or other leprosy losses because they didn't get medical treatment in time. Lonergan said leprosy is still a taboo illness, and the lepers are segregated from other populations.
Lonergan, 36, has been a dental hygienist for nine years and was a dental assistant for about five years before that. So much of the work she does during her monthlong stays has to do with teeth. Working with a translator, Lonergan visits schools two to three days a week to give talks and demonstrations, using a big set of teeth, on how to care for them.
"When I arrived there, they surprised me with a volunteer position in a dental clinic. For that month, it was more observation. I was able to watch, ask questions, to see what health issues were biggest. I helped with the paperwork. A week before I had left, we decided to split up the toothbrushes and mouthwash I had brought. This village was really (remote), but I enjoyed being with these people who had never had dental education."
Most people in the remote villages use "chewing sticks," which Lonergan says are twigs filed to a point. They are first used as toothpicks until they get softened up by saliva; then people "brush" with them. Lonergan said tartar build up is a big problem, eventually causing gum disease.
"In the villages, most people don't have English skills, so when I talk, a public health nurse translates for me." The odd thing, she notices, is that villagers really pay attention to what she has to say.
"Here, when I talk, people don't really listen."
During her first trip, Lonergan brought 250 toothbrushes — not enough for everyone, so she passed them out just to the children. Nine months later, Lonergan returned with 900 toothbrushes, which was better, but still not enough. Last February, Lonergan returned and spoke to about 1,200 children in eight schools in different villages and communities.
"You can get toothpaste and brushes in the towns, but not in the villages," she said. "At least, for the kids, every six months I'll replace them. But what I've found is every single person in that family is using that (kid's) toothbrush."
Lonergan says she now ships between six to eight bags of provisions to Ghana before each trip.
"It's been great to see the kids and how much they retain from the last time. I was able to get permission to start doing cleanings. That was a huge achievement."
A few times, Lonergan stayed in a village with a host family. During her last visit, she stayed at an orphanage, where she cleaned the teeth of 10 children, ages 4 to 13 years old.
"It was quite a project," she said. "I laid them out on a table and did my cleanings, using hand-scaling instruments and liquid sterilizer. The kids were amazing. There were so well-behaved. They let me do everything that needed to be done."
Because everything was hand-done, and because there was so much tartar on some of the teeth, each cleaning took two to three hours. But instead of being afraid of getting their teeth cleaned, Lonergan said the children were fighting over who would go next.
"Three didn't get done, because it took longer than I expected it to," she said. "I'm anxious to see how much (tartar) build up there is in six months."
Lonergan's next planned visit is in August. While there, she says, she does some sightseeing on weekends, "so I get a little vacation in."
As Volta Aid Foundation volunteer, Lonergan pays for her own expenses, but she takes donations for the supplies she brings with her. She said some dental practices have donated dental items, and that three local churches have also taken up collections or held fundraisers for supplies.
"I do have a lot of future plans, being in an orphanage and learning how it's run," she remarked. "Very little love is given there, except from the volunteers. I would really like to open an orphanage. I have joined with United Faiths, a nonprofit, non-religious organization for children, and they're building an orphanage in Liberia, to house 40 to 45 children.
"We're going to put a little dental clinic in there for me. Once it's built, I'll be living there. Once we get that one built, we would like to raise money and do that in Ghana as well."
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