Clinic serves 80 during 2-day visit |

Clinic serves 80 during 2-day visit

ENSENADA, Mexico – A big tear rolled down the cheek of 8-year-old Mayeli Berenice Quezada Alvarez as she sat in a chair getting an X-ray of her aching teeth.

The resident of the Buena Vista Canyon Home for orphans had never seen a dentist, and though she was in pain, her fear of the clunky machine pointed at her cheek – and what could lie beyond it – was greater.

Berenice, as her friends call her, was among 80 people living in and around the Baja California city of Ensenada who received attention from more than 40 volunteers who staffed the Nor Cal Dental Clinic last week. The group included people from western Nevada County and the Yuba City-Marysville area, and was organized by local 49er Rotary Club members Steven Leighty and Ann Hendricks.

During the two-day clinic on March 30 and 31, the American and Mexican volunteers took X-rays, pulled rotten teeth, performed root canals and filled cavities for people who otherwise would have received no care at all, or would have suffered in pain until their families could scrape together the money for a local dentist.

Though Mexico provides a health care program for many of the country’s poor, children like Berenice and the indigenous families that came to the clinic fall through the cracks.

The cost of a bus ride, the consultation and medicine is far beyond the reach of people in the Pay Pay (pronounced pie-pie) village of Santa Catarina. Pay Pay is a two-hour drive into the hills from Ensenada and is where 40-year-old Thelma Canedo Castro lives with her six children.

“The children only go when there are problems, but for a check-up, no, we would never go,” Canedo Castro said, her two-year-old girl sleeping in her arms.

Partnering for the poor

Leighty, a Grass Valley oral surgeon, and Hendricks, who handles the administrative end of the clinic, came to know the place four years ago when they volunteered with the Thousand Smiles Foundation.

The group founded by San Diego Rotary members repairs cleft palates and cleft lips at quarterly clinics in Ensenada. It maintains a modern facility in a former Red Cross building in a neighborhood a couple miles from the shopping quarter where cruise ships let off passengers.

“We kept going back and going back. We realized they were only using the facility four times a year,” Hendricks said. They thought they could do more.

Last April, the Thousand Smiles people gave Hendricks and Leighty a set of keys and the Nor Cal clinic was born.

Nor Cal offers clinics twice a year. It supports Thousand Smiles by restocking supplies and bringing down equipment such as autoclaves and x-ray machines, Leighty said.

Hendricks and Leighty partnered with Los Gatos, Calif., based Comunidad, which works on health, education and infrastructure projects in Baja’s indigenous communities. Comunidad brought extended families from three areas to the clinic.

The Utah-based Boardwalk Group provided translators. From the University of California San Diego’s pre-dental program, about 10 undergrads and their dentist-leader helped out on the latest trip.

Mexican dentists and charitable organizations, including Ensenada Rotary clubs, also supported the clinic.

In addition to offering dental care, volunteers took blood pressure and screened visitors for diabetes, which occurs at higher levels among indigenous people and Latinos than among European-Americans, Hendricks said.

Little preventive care

At the clinic last week, the volunteers saw the combined effects of poverty, ignorance, poor diet, little dental hygiene and scanty preventive care.

Leighty has seen it on each of his dozen trips to the clinic.

“There’s a lot of gum disease. We see a lot of cavities, a lot of people with missing teeth who don’t get them replaced,” Leighty said. “The kids, some of them have teeth that are impacted or jumbled up or malpositioned.”

Some of his patients don’t know what to do with the medicine they receive, and can’t read the Spanish-language instructions, he said.

“It’s the same problems we see in this country,” Leighty said. “But it seems more of the population (in Nevada County) has the resources to get their teeth repaired. At the clinic, we see things that are more extreme just because things have gone for a longer period of time before they sought treatment.”

The dentists tried to save young people’s teeth as much as possible; several root canal patients were 12 and 13 years old. But they pulled many teeth when they were unsure whether the patient would get the needed follow-up care.

“We have to do something that we think will make them better, keeping in mind we may never see them again or it may be years and years before they seek treatment again,” Leighty said.

He hopes to persuade dental laboratory technicians to go next time and make crowns that can be cemented over the root canal work, Leighty said. The crowns save the teeth for a much longer period.

Rewarding work

For Berenice Quezada, the work done will last her many years.

After seeing the dentist on the second floor of the clinic, she came downstairs and sobbed in the arms of the children’s caretaker, Rosi Gutierrez. But later, she was all smiles as she played with other girls from the orphanage and watched the boys kick a soccer ball in the patio.

Those moments offered the richest rewards for the clinic volunteers.

“My dad was a dentist in Kansas where I grew up, and he told me it was a real privilege to be a dentist and … it’s the right thing to do to give back something to the community and the world in general,” Leighty said.


To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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