Dr Amit Patel’s life-changing trip to Tanzania

Our clinical charity is Bridge2Aid, which provides dental treatment and training in remote rural areas of Tanzania. The charity was established in 2004 and so far has provided safe dental treatment to more than five million patients.

Dr Amit Patel, from our Bognor Regis practice, has just returned from a trip with the charity, where he helped train six rural health workers in dental skills, giving remote communities lasting access to emergency treatment.

He kept a diary of his experience to share – read it below!

Dr Amit Patel

Every year mydentist sends two dentists to Tanzania to get involved and this year I was lucky enough to be picked – an opportunity I will always be grateful for.

The charity relies on volunteers to travel to Tanzania to be part of a sustainable healthcare model. It trains local clinical officers to be competent in diagnosis and safe tooth extraction, so that when we leave there continues to be a provision of services.

Like all great stories, they begin by stepping out of your comfort zone and that is certainly how I felt sipping my Costa Coffee waiting for meet other fellow volunteers at Heathrow airport. Completely unaware what a beautiful time, lasting friendships and rewarding experiences awaited me. One by one, the group got larger and so did the laughter. Finally we set off under leadership of our Site Clinical Lead: Andrew Paterson.

After two days of travelling which involved three flights, a 6 hour drive and a ferry crossing we arrived in the the Chato region of Tanzania. There is no sugar coating sub Saharan Africa, no looking through rose tinted lenses, no turning a blind eye. The hardships millions of people have to endure is the very definition of poverty and you have to embrace it. So quickly you gain perspective, appreciation of your life in England and your own trivial problems dwindle in comparison.

The first day we arrived at the clinic, it was a sight I have never seen before. There were 120 patients already waiting for us sitting in the blistering heat, many who walked miles to be seen and have had to endure toothache for months or even up to years due to lack of services. We were led to where we needed to set up. To my surprise the room we occupied is the same size as my surgery in England, once again making me realise the luxuries we have. Instead of the mods cons the room was filled with 8 plastic chairs for patients to sit on and tables to hold all our instruments. It really is a great demonstration of innovation and ingenuity.

We then had the pleasure to meet all six clinical officers: local respected healthcare workers of whom we had the pleasure to train. Afterwards, the doors opened and that when the fun really began. The buzzing atmosphere, grateful patients and rewards of teaching is so infectious. The patients never complain, are so thankful and always laugh when you try to speak Swahili. What is most magical is seeing the Clinical Officers grow, when we first meet they only have academic knowledge of the mouth and quite literally know nothing about the practical aspects of dentistry.

The first day opens your mind of what techniques you now don’t even think about such as holding a needle properly, changing gloves in between patients and positioning yourself. All of which needs to be taught. However as the days pass, they never ceased to amaze me. Before you know it, they are working independently in diagnosis, administering local anaesthetic and extracting difficult teeth whilst maintaining such professionalism.

Every day was hard work and when we got back to the hotel we all had a much needed beer. The level of dental disease is unfathomable. In my ten years as a dentist in England I have never seen some of the disease I saw in two weeks in Tanzania. One patient that will stay with me forever, travelled for miles to be seen. For years he had been struggling to swallow and breathe. He had grown such large chronic infection that it was now an extra oral sinus draining out onto his jaw. The charity paid for him to go to hospital for IV antibiotics and have treatment. There is no doubt in my mind this lovely man would have died in a matter of week from sepsis.

My most cherished final memory was on the last day. All of the clinical officers were passed and we had small graduation ceremony. Nine days of hard work had all paid off and we could not be more proud of them all. They all received their passing out certificates and what I loved the most, was their departing gift. A box containing extraction instruments and a steam pressure cooker to clean them. This really reflected how sustainable this charity is.

Like all adventures it had to come to an end and before I knew it I was flying back to London with a much needed renewed sense of purpose and appreciation of what is important in life. I would strongly urge any Dental professionals to volunteer – it is both life changing for you as a volunteer and for the people of Tanzania.

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