Dental Volunteering in Cambodia
As I embarked on my 7 day dental volunteering in Cambodia experience, I was filled with excitement and nerves all at the same time. I have always wanted to go solo-travelling. Having thought about this dental elective since I started dental school in 2013 and planned it with Karin at DocTours for about a year now, I couldn’t quite believe the time had finally come.
I arrived at the Battambang Referral Hospital bright and early at 8am on Monday morning and was received so warmly by the staff in the dental clinic. The days were from 8-11 and 2-5: yes I had a 3 hour lunch break everyday! There are 7 dentists, 2 nurses and 1 assistant and the dentists all rotate everyday so I met them all over the week: 3 dentists work in the morning and there is 1 dentist in the afternoon. On the first morning, I observed how everything works; the patients are called in by the assistant and take their shoes off at the entrance. They will sit in the dental chair and rinse their mouths before the dentists look- quite a difference to how it all runs in the UK. The dental decay and periodontal disease is vast. The severity and prevalence of decay was much higher than I’ve seen in the UK and it ranged across all ages. One dentist also explained that there is no awareness or attempt to explain the importance of oral hygiene. Once treatment finishes, the patients will pay their fee with the assistant- it is a subsided fee as it is a government hospital. Other patients go to private practices: The hospital sees patients who cannot afford to go privately or patients that have been referred due to the complexity of the case. This is similar to how the National Health Service vs private system runs in the UK.
From the afternoon on the first day onwards, I was assisting with treatment: extractions, fillings, fractured teeth. Even though I could not speak the language, the power of non verbal communication became evident. Although I found it difficult at first, I did not realise how much I could rely on this to see patients, especially those with anxiety; body language, a simple smile, a reassuring touch. This worked both ways: They were just always so appreciative of the treatment and bowed their heads to say thank you. To see their smiles as they left was extremely rewarding and made me grateful for such an experience.
Working with so many members of the dental team was such a pleasure. They really welcomed me in and took me under their wing. It was such a community feel while working with them. We exchanged stories about our lives in Battambang and London respectively. All were so warm and friendly and before I knew it, it was Friday, my last day. I went from being apprehensive about what to expect to feeling so upset that it had come to an end so fast! It was such a pleasant surprise when they presented me with a gift and invited me to a leaving dinner party with all the staff! We went to a restaurant where they’d gotten a private room with a karaoke machine set up. I tried traditional Cambodian specialties under the dentists’ trusting guidance and then sang the evening away.
On the weekend:
My work wasn’t done yet though! The weekend was upon me and I visited the Sunbeam Orphanage where I gave around 30 children oral hygiene lessons with the head of the orphanage being the translator. I had bought toothbrushes, toothpaste, certificates and stickers with me from the UK, all donated by GlaxoSmithKline and it was an extremely fulfilling to watch them perfect their techniques as they brushed their teeth. It was a wonderful end to a life changing week.
Aside from the dental aspect of this trip, I did squeeze in some sight seeing! I visited a few temples, one of which I travelled on a motorbike to see at the top of a mountain! I saw 1 million bats come out of a cave at sunset and the nurses were kind enough to take me on their motorbike around the town and for a ride on the ‘bamboo’ train. Battambang completely captured my heart: the people, the food, the peacefulness about the place. I would recommend this place to anyone.
I cannot thank Karin at DocTours enough for organising the whole trip. Right from the airport transfers, the spacious, safe accommodation to the hospital placement and orphanage trip. It all ran smoothly and without a hitch, thankfully! I learnt so much and gained so much experience in such a short space of time. I have grown both personally and professionally and couldn’t have asked for a more hospitable, warm and welcoming group of people who made the dental elective even more enjoyable!
I would recommend DocTours to anyone in a heartbeat and I would love to go on a trip with them again.
Final year Dental Student United Kingdom.
For more information on Volunteering in Cambodia with DocTours.