Mountain sickness and moments of sheer happiness
An unforgettable mission: Dr Michael Willi, president of the Swiss-based foundation Secours Dentaire International (Dental Aid International, SDI), will remember his humanitarian mission to Peru for a long time – not only because of the precarious oral health conditions of the Peruvian patients he treated but also because of the dramatic hours he spent saving his daughter from the life-threating consequences of acute altitude sickness.
Education is a scarce commodity in Peru for those who have little or no money. Despite his poor background, Peruvian-born Saulo Gamarra was able to work his way up to become a dentist. He had been practising dentistry in Cusco for several years before he decided to sell his practice and follow his increasing desire to help the poor and destitute. He travelled the world on humanitarian missions for eight years. He then felt it was time to return to his home town of Cusco to continue his life’s work there. "Deprived and poor people from rural areas should be given an opportunity to receive dental care, just like everybody else. Even if they can pay only little or nothing, they should have access to a clinic that can provide them with high-quality treatment under optimum hygienic conditions."
A practice is launched and a great friendship begins
The project quickly took shape and, just over a year into it, has progressed to an advanced stage. An interest-free loan from an American benefactor enabled Saulo Gamarra to establish a new practice in record time. And so it was opened in spring 2019. The modern treatment facilities are housed in a guarded high-rise building in the Huancaro district. The team consists of a dental assistant and two dentists, who work part time alongside Saulo Gamarra, whilst they earn their living in their own practices.
The practice relies on the continued donation from third parties. Saulo Gamarra counts on the contacts he has made all over the world. This is also how Swiss-based Dr Michael Willi, president of the NGO Secours Dentaire International (SDI) met his Peruvian colleague in Cusco. The two men share a deep friendship that has extended well beyond the nitty-gritty of their day-to-day work. They are bound by a shared mission: to promote prophylactic dental care and improve the oral health of Peru’s rural population.
In March 2019, Dr Michael Willi and his daughter Franziska travelled to Peru, where they spent ten days together with Saulo Gamarra in Cusco. Included in their baggage was a donation in kind from Ivoclar Vivadent.
Working in challenging circumstances is part of everyday life
Saulo Gamarra accompanied Dr Michael Willi and his daughter on their journey into Peru‘s high mountains; some of the places they visited were over 4000 m (13,000 ft) above sea level. On their trip, they visited, among other places, a school in Occopati to educate the local kids on basic oral health care. Dr Willi noticed that the children had an incredibly high caries incidence, which he attributed to the high consumption of cariogenic food. "Saulo Gamarra delivered a masterpiece of a presentation for the parents and children," recalls the SDI president. This village has never been visited by a dentist before and practically every child is affected by tooth decay.
Altitude sickness strikes with full vengeance
A few days later, they visited the health centre of Marampaqui located at an altitude of almost 4300 m (14,100 ft) a. s. l. and they soon realized one thing: the range of dentists who would like to work in such a remote location and, above all, at this extreme altitude, must be limited. This meant that the people were all the more thankful for the free dental treatment they were offered and the demand for it was huge.
Not long after this visit Franziska began to complain of a headache and her condition soon deteriorated. The dentist in the village diagnosed her immediately with altitude sickness and asked her to lie down straight away. Her condition worsened so rapidly that only a few minutes later she could no longer feel her face and arms. She hardly responded when she was talked to, appeared to be very confused and her head was bright red. At this point, the locals became jumpy and they did everything they could to get Franziska down to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. Without an immediate descent, she may have developed a cerebral edema.
Dr Willi carried his trembling daughter down a steep stairway, where a vehicle was already waiting for them. They set off at high speed over mud tracks, rising passes and bumpy roads. The ride took three hours, spent in the hope that Franziska would not pass out before her condition had finally stabilized. A few days later, she had recovered from this horrendous experience.
"We would like to take this opportunity to thank Ivoclar Vivadent once more for its generous donation of materials," says Dr Michael Willi, president of the NGO Secours Dentaire International.
An effective roadmap for the future
Over the coming months, Saulo Gamarra will have to devise ways of increasing the efficiency of his clinic, in addition to looking after his large flock of patients, before he can think of employing volunteers and extending his remit. Dr Michael Willi and the Swiss NGO Secours Dentaire International are giving Saulo Gamarra a helping hand in solving these questions in order to make the clinic as effective as can be. All people involved in the project share a common belief. That belief is that helping people in deprived regions in such a way that it makes a difference to their life is one of the most beautiful things you can achieve in your life.
Copyrights for the images: Dr Michael Willi | www.secoursdentaire.ch