Travelling to the other end of the world with eleven suitcases
Are you scared of the dentist? The villagers of Eikwe in Ghana are at least sceptical of professional dental treatment. They rather trust in the art of shamans, healers and priests than in conventional medicine. Niclas Meinke witnessed this attitude first hand. The dentist from Cologne spent three weeks at Martin St. Porres Hospital in Eikwe to provide dental care to the locals. Ivoclar Vivadent supported him with a donation in kind. Having returned to Germany, the dedicated dental professional is resolute in his commitment to building a dental aid station that will last the community for a long.
Getting to the small town of Eikwe and its 2000 inhabitants was the first obstacle that the volunteers had to overcome. They spent 14 flight hours to get from Düsseldorf to Accra via Dubai. However, the real adventure still was to come when they set off from Ghana’s capital Accra on a nine-hour road trip to their final destination, driving in an off-road vehicle on roads damaged by deep potholes and with some of them being single-track only. When they finally arrived they were greeted by a town bordering a wide beach lined by palm trees. “As the crow flies, Eikwe is only 6000 kilometres away from Cologne, but it felt as distant as the other end of world,” says Niclas Meinke, smiling. Tough though it was, he never regretted the 36-hour trip – to the contrary!
A relative who had been working for a medical missionary service in Africa for many years inspired Niclas Meinke to get involved with St Martin de Porres Hospital in Côte d’Ivoire, which he did together with his colleague Dr Petra Jasper-Pellio and two medical students, who were able to complete their practical training in Ghana this way. The hospital in Eikwe was founded in 1959 under Catholic patronage and is now funded in large parts by donations. The hospital provides a good infrastructure considering its location. It features a fully equipped operating theatre, central sterilization facility and a pharmacy. Yet, a dental surgery equipped with a dental chair, overhead lights or an X-ray apparatus was nowhere to be found. Luckily, it just so happened that the gynaecologist was on vacation when Dr Meinke arrived - and so his consultation room - equipped with a gynaecological chair - was transformed into a “dental office”. The air con was an added bonus here.
“The hospital is run very well both from a medical and administrative point of view. The members of the team are not corrupt. Instead they are closely connected to the hospital through personal experience. And the idea of Christian charity is lived here without greed for profit,” Niclas Meinke points out. He did not travel to Ghana empty-handed. Before the trip, he asked for material donations from dental companies such as Ivoclar Vivadent - and was not disappointed. Eleven pieces of luggage survived the flights and overland journey. Once arrived, he was well equipped to sink his teeth into his job.
And he did not have to wait for patients - they were already there and waiting as they had been informed about the upcoming dental services on posters and radio announcements in advance. Niclas Meinke was only the third dentist to work at the hospital ever. His consultation hours were from 9 am to 4 pm in the afternoon. “The donations in kind we were given enabled us to offer patients the entire range of restorative dental care, which did not mean that we did not have to surgically remove severely damaged and painful teeth in some cases,” the young German dentist reports. He saw up to 20 patients a day - but he had expected to see more. There was a substantial need for dental care, but too few people knew that the doctors from Europe were there. This meant that there was time in the early mornings and late afternoons to perform treatments under general anesthetics, for instance to remove large abscesses in small children or in children with disabilities.
The volunteers were surprised to see how healthy the teeth of some patients were even if they had never seen a dentist before. Most cases required the removal of posterior teeth that were found to have an unfavourable prognosis. "We had to make do with a purely visual assessment, because a dental X-ray unit was not available to us," Dr Meinke says.
During the first week, the Ghanaian trainee nurse Bridget helped clean the instruments and equipment and stepped in as interpreter for patients who did not speak English. In Ghana, there are about 80 tribes with their own languages. So, even the inhabitants of the country use the official language of English to communicate with each other outside of their communities - if they can speak English. Bridget was often, but not always, quite successful when it came to convincing the local women and men of trusting conventional medicine rather than using home-made remedies with uncertain effectiveness. When Bridget had to go back to her regular hospital work after a few days, she was sorely missed, not least because of her communication skills.
Niclas Meinke thinks beyond the present and wants to ensure continuity in the provision of dental care: His objective is to be present on location with fellow dentists once or twice a year to provide dental care at regular intervals. In addition, a local person should be trained up to fulfil the role of a dental nurse who can assist the dentists in their future deployments and coordinate the appointments with the patients. This would also be of use to the hospital in general.
The schoolchildren that Mr Meinke treated during the three weeks responded well to the dental care they were given. “When they came to see us during the children’s consultation hours they readily sat down on the dental chair without hesitating.” He feels that it would make sense to get the schools involved in the project and to visit them regularly to raise awareness among the children of the importance of good oral hygiene early on in their lives and to inform them about dental treatments.
To implement his plans, he will continue to rely on the support of other people and organizations and he would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for all the donations and the hard work of the people involved in the project.
Caption: Dr. Niclas Meinke