Like most American dentists, Drs. Frank and Candice Sullivan, of St. Francisville, work with modern equipment, in comfortable surroundings and for patients who try to keep their smiles in decent shape.
For three hectic days in October, they saw the other end of the spectrum.
It was Gressier, Haiti, a city where dentistry is largely unknown. There were no drills or suction machines because there was no electricity to power them, or even provide lighting, much less air conditioning. Their patients had never seen a dentist, or even knew what a toothbrush was.
“I pulled more teeth on that trip than I’ve pulled in 18 years of private practice,” said Frank Sullivan, 44.
Or is likely to pull for the rest of his career, except when he returns to Gressier — which the Sullivans insist they will do.
The Sullivans and four of their staff — hygienists Dana Criminger and Lee Ann Rogers, and dental assistants Emma Hildebrand and Brittany Dawson — went there to assist Respire Haiti, as did a Baton Rouge physician, Dr. Dawn Vick.
Megan Boudreaux, of Lafayette, founded Respire Haiti as a Christian outreach to the desperately poor after visiting there in 2010. Bret Pinson, a friend of the Sullivans, recruited them when two other dentists backed out shortly before the trip was scheduled to take place.
“He just did a little spiel, and everyone in the room was crying, including myself, and we said, ‘We’re in. What do we need to do?’” Frank Sullivan said.
The answer: more than he expected.
The trip was based at Respire’s school for about 600 children, which has 40 teachers and 114 staff members. They examined all of the children and adults, including construction workers still building the facility, and some of the students’ parents. About 125 of them needed dental work; all of them received toothbrushes and toothpaste and were taught how to use them.
Some patients needed more than one tooth removed. Unable to bring in more powerful medicines, they provided ibuprofen for patients to take when the Novocain wore off.
“Just a lot of people who have been living with a lot of pain,” Frank Sullivan said. “Some people we saw had been living like this for years.
“We used a lot of gauze. … We never had been a part of anything like this. We’re kind of spoiled. We have all the latest, greatest stuff in our office, so we never really practiced antiquated dentistry.”
The Sullivans wore lights strapped to their foreheads, and assistants held flashlights so they could see what they were doing. A translator told patients what was going on, and held a battery-operated fan to combat the sweltering heat. The school is at the top of a hill, and by the time they climbed it to start the day at about 8:30 a.m., they were dripping sweat, said Candice Sullivan, 42, who specializes in pediatric dentistry.
“But you didn’t think about that,” she said. “We were on a mission to take care of these teeth.”
That mission lasted slightly longer than planned. Less than an hour before they were to leave for the airport in Port-au-Prince, the Sullivans met a youth soccer coach who asked them to look at one of his 14-year-old players who had bad teeth. All of their dental gear was packed at their hotel. Some equipment they would need was still at the school.
“He looks at me, and I said, ‘We’re not leaving here without fixing this kid,’” Candice Sullivan said. “So, we take our cell phone and text our girls, who are at the hotel, ‘We’re bringing a patient … unpack.’”
They pulled two of the teen’s teeth, repacked and headed to the airport.
Their patients’ gratitude is one of the memories the Sullivans took from Haiti. They plan to go back.
“It was good for the soul,” Candice Sullivan said. “It was like somebody gave your heart a big hug.”