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Learning on location: dental students provide care, boost skills during service trip to Jamacia

Last month, students from the University of Washington School of Dentistry were able to take part in an impactful volunteer outreach trip, sending 28 dental students to Jamaica to treat over 700 patients in need.

Led by Dr. John Yae of the Department of Restorative Dentistry, twenty fourth-year and eight third-year students visited three clinic locations in western Jamaica over the course of four-and-a-half days.

Students work on patients at a nearby Church that was turned into a makeshift clinic.
Students work on patients at a nearby Church that was turned into a makeshift clinic.

Members of the community waited from morning till dark each day to see students for cleanings, extractions and fillings. Students also provided oral hygiene instruction, toothbrushes and toothpaste to hundreds of elementary school children from the local communities. In total they gave out 226 fillings, 300 extractions and 151 cleanings.

“Going as a student volunteer last year, the most fulfilling moment was seeing a patient struggling to suppress a huge smile after finishing an anterior restoration,” said Elliot Willis, a D4 and a student leader of the event this year alongside fellow fourth-years Ryan Axtell, Emma Fitzgerald and Neusha Javad. “Being more in a support position this year, it was incredible to be set back far enough to see how well UW students worked under the less-than-ideal clinical conditions, day in and day out without complaining.”

“I was able to push them and over time they began getting more and more comfortable,” said Dr. Yae on his approach to coaching students through the experience. “If I saw they were struggling a bit I would jump in and get them started, but I wanted them to get as much of their own hands-on experience as possible.”

Ochoa and her classmates gathering in the morning before they head out to their clinic sites.
Ochoa and her classmates gathering in the morning before they head out to their clinic sites.

“The most fulfilling aspect of the trip for me was witnessing the tangible impact we had on the lives of the people we served,” said third-year student Rebecca Ochoa. “Watching the line of people waiting outside the clinic gradually diminish over time was incredibly rewarding. It was a testament to the positive impact our efforts were having in enhancing people’s lives.”

Ochoa recalled a patient who arrived at their site in severe pain from a tooth that needed an extraction, along with another patient who had a tooth restoration that had fallen out. Both were taken care of and each expressed immense gratitude to Ochoa and her classmates.

Willis commended his peers for their hard work, noting how fulfilling it was to see them strive towards helping as many patients as they could. “It really highlighted how service-driven UW students are at their core and it served as a reminder of what sets the UW School of Dentistry apart from other schools,” said Willis.

Students first participated in this outreach trip back in 2013 and groups continued to go annually up until the Covid-19 pandemic had to put it on pause. The trip has been organized each year with the help of Great Shape! Inc., a volunteer organization centered around providing health care and education opportunities in the Caribbean. Great Shape put together the resort accommodations, transportation to and from the clinic sites, and provided the equipment, so all the students had to worry about was showing up and treating patients.

“I can tell you as a UWSOD alumnus and faculty, I was extremely proud of all of our students,” said Dr. Yae. “Even though it was very hot, and we were working without our normal equipment, no one complained, and everyone worked hard to make sure all the patients were taken care of to the best of their ability.”

Part of the UW School of Dentistry’s mission is to, through service, improve the public’s health through outreach programs with attention to minority and underserved communities. Thanks to our diligent students choosing to combine their power for good, that mission was felt in the Jamaican communities.

“The camaraderie among our group of students with a shared goal was remarkable, and it’s an experience I’ll forever cherish,” said Ochoa. “The people of Jamaica have left an indelible mark on my heart, and I cannot wait to return.”

With two consecutive, successful years post the pandemic in the books, students have shown ample interest in continuing the trip next year.