This was my first trip to the Highlands of Vietnam, a beautiful, lush forest area of the country where Lovers of the Holy Cross of Qui Nhon serve many villages. One of their most unique ministries I discovered was dental missions. Sr. Anna Bach-Tuyet Le, although not a trained dental nurse, accompanied one of the missions and was conscripted to assist the dentist. Her sisters collaborate with local parishes and dentists from Qui Nhon City General Hospital to bring dental services to people who have never seen a dentist. I wasn't able to participate in one of these missions, but did visit the Jesuit parish that welcomes them periodically.
When I arrived home again, Sister Anna sent me a description of her experience of such a mission in January of this year. She tells this story:
We started out early morning of January 12 traveling in a van with a team of Jesuit brothers, a dentist and one of his senior students from the Qui Nhon City Hospital and a few volunteers. We carried equipment and materials with us because this was our first visit to Nam Binh. The trip was an adventure of sometimes breath-holding moments as we traveled near the edge of narrow winding rice paddy embankments, zigzagging between bushes, fence posts, cows and water buffalo. Meeting other cars and trucks were closed-eyes moments for some of us. However, all these scary scenes were forgotten when we saw the pastor, the parish sisters and parishioners waiting for us with broad welcoming smiles. It was like a festival.
Once the prolonged greetings were finished we were taken to a large room behind the church altar which would be our clinic for the next three days. We unloaded the equipment and supplies, assembled and tested the machines, and as often happens, discovered that one of the portable dental units needed some repair. While this was being done others of us set up a wash station with a sterilization unit and four basins to be filled with sterile solutions. After two hours we were ready to begin our rice paddy mission.
The next three days were fully non-stop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The church's courtyard was filled with lines of people of many different tribes, races and religions. It was open, free to all, and 226 patients took advantage of the 'clinic of love' for treatment and consultations. It was exciting to us that for most of them, it was their first encounter with a dentist. Many expressed amazement when they learned that their 'tiny' teeth could have such huge impact on the general health of their 'big' bodies.
They knew the pain of a tooth ache and assumed that having the tooth pulled out or a cavity filled would solve the problem and they could go home happy. But they were not there just for problem solving, but also to learn about prevention of these pains. Children had seen their parents lose teeth in their 30s because of severe gum disease. Now both children and parents were learning that they could prevent tooth loss and much future pain not only in their mouths but elsewhere in their bodies if they would regularly brush and floss their teeth. They also realized that keeping healthy teeth and gums kept them attractive — a great incentive for everyone.
Throughout the days we had fun watching kids, high schoolers and adults showing off their fresh, clean teeth in big smiles. It was a day they would never forget, and neither would we. For some who came during the three days, the experience would be a life changing event, even though at the moment, it seemed simple. We left the village with big smiles too newly aware that our small efforts could accomplish so much.
At one point in our travels we did visit one of the dental offices where Sr. Ane Minh-Tran, a trained dental nurse and one of Sister Anna's sisters offers regular dental services. She has her own office as part of a Patient Care Center in Peiku City of Gialai province.
All dental nurses in Vietnam are allowed to perform tooth extraction, cavity fillings and teeth cleaning as long as there is a dentist around. Thus Sister Ane can do all these services because local dentists provide additional training and monitoring of the sisters' work. Along with her office work, Sister Ane also enjoys dental missions in remote areas of the highland regions.
Seeing these sisters finding ways to live the Gospel in new ways was very exciting to me. Nothing, as St Paul says so well, not even rigid government restrictions, can keep the Word of God in chains.
[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison to women religious outside of the United States for Global Sisters Report.]