I’m happy to report that since the last time I emailed you, we have had electricity and water almost every day! It doesn’t take much to make me a happy camper these days, and you can take the word “camper” literally if you consider that it often feels like indoor camping here.
The school uniforms project is just about finished, only needing a few items exchanged for other sizes. The grand total is 29 kids who are now happily outfitted for school, thanks to many of you. Basic needs are never-ending, however. I hang out with the kids and they tell me all sorts of things.
A few weeks ago, a 15 year old girl named Nontobeko (the one who was wearing regular clothing rather than her school uniform in the picture at KFC I attached last time) came in with one side of her face swollen from a bad tooth. Actually it had been like that for days but her mom didn’t have the taxi fare to send her to the nearest government (i.e., free) dental clinic which is about 30 minutes away in the next town. She definitely wouldn’t have afforded to pay the fee for the private dentist in Olievenhoutbosch, so I offered to drive the girl to the clinic. The dental equipment at that clinic has been broken for a couple of years and the Department of Health has not come up with the funds to repair it, so all they can do is pull teeth. Anything else gets referred to an academic dental hospital in Pretoria, which is even further away. When we got to the clinic, they first had to find her old medical record. After an hour of waiting, we went back to reception to ask what was taking so long to find the file and we saw it sitting on top of the receptionist’s pile. She just hadn’t bothered to call us and we could have been sitting there indefinitely. She then sent us to the dental building, where we saw only two other patients waiting: a woman who looked like 30-something with every other tooth missing and a woman in her 20s nursing a 2 week old baby.
Eventually, the dentist showed up, called the first woman to get the numbing injection, and no sooner did this woman come out of the room trembling and holding her face, then the dentist yelled, “Next!” The second woman disconnected the baby and gave it to the first woman – a total stranger – to hold. Apparently this was not fast enough for the dentist, who got impatient with the young woman for not jumping up immediately. This already was setting off an alarm in my head because you don’t want to even unintentionally piss off a person who is about to jab your mouth with a needle! In less time than it took to get herself up and into the dentist’s room, the poor woman was out, also looking like she had been traumatized. “Next!” It was our turn.
I went in with Nontobeko and the dentist asked the child which tooth needed to be pulled. Is this anyone’s idea of an examination???? Nontobeko showed her which tooth hurt – a back molar on top – and with no topical numbing gel ahead of time, in went the needle. The injection on the outside was moderately tolerable but the one on the palate side just about caused the child to pass out. This dentist, a woman, had such a heavy hand that I think maybe she would have been more suited to wield a wrench and work on cars. So out to the waiting room we went, joining the sisterhood of terrified patients, and without wasting any time, the dentist called in the first patient for the extraction. It couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes after she had been injected. Wham, bam, [no] thank you ma’am, she was out again, this time with a swollen cheek and tears in her eyes. I asked if she had been numb before the tooth was pulled and she said no.
“Next!” The young woman gave the baby again to the first woman, who in a daze now held the baby for her rather than bolt out the door. Maybe holding this newborn was somewhat comforting. Déjà vu: out came the second woman in about a minute, also shaking.
“Next!” I went in with Nontobeko, who had to witness this scene in anticipation of what she might have to endure, and firmly said to the dentist who already had pliers in hand, “You’re not touching her until she’s numb.” The dentist looked at me like I was from another planet, so I repeated what I had said. She collected her wits for about 30 seconds and then checked by wiggling the tooth with the pliers, asking Nontobeko if she felt pain or just pressure. Thankfully, it was just pressure, and the tooth came out without a hitch. The only instructions at that point were on a half sheet of paper, which we found on our own. The dentist herself offered no information on how to care for your mouth after an extraction. Actually there was something on the info sheet that came in handy. If after a while, the wad of cotton you bite down on gets saturated with blood and the bleeding hasn’t stopped, you can replace it with a regular tea bag. The caffeine will help constrict the blood vessels.
Now that the ordeal was over, Nontobeko asked if we could stop at the nearby school she attended when she was in first and second grades. She had to change schools after that and was never able to make a return visit. We stopped there and she saw her favorite teacher, who after all these years recognized her. The visit meant so much to both of them. The bonus was that the teacher had a spare tea bag, which worked very well.
Since it was only late morning and Nontobeko wasn’t going to return to school that day, she stayed with me and we went to the mall to do some more school uniform shopping, have lunch, and just hang out. She’s a wonderful girl, very mature, caring, and grateful for the blessings in her life, in spite of all the adversity that comes with poverty and a broken family. At the end of the day, she told me it was one of the best days she ever had. What does that tell you? I’m sure you and I can say we’ve had more good days than we can count, but I bet none of them ever involved getting a tooth pulled!
Well, she isn’t the only one with sore teeth, but after that, I will never take another child to that clinic. I spoke with the local dentist I wrote about last time and she agreed to treat our kids and give me a nice discount, so this is my new project. I started with 5 of the 29 kids this past Friday and will take all of them to her over the next several weeks for screening and treatment as needed. This woman is an angel compared with the sadist at the clinic. She was so good with the kids that they experienced no trauma at all. With the discount, each procedure (cleaning, filling, extraction) is only about $20, and this is where your contributions are going this time. Email me if you want the logistics of how to help.
As for bringing an affordable dental clinic to the community, our local health forum requested that the municipal powers-that-be give or build us a 2 or 3 bedroom house to use for this purpose. We’ll see how far this request gets. They give houses to poor people who have at least one dependent; why not provide something that will benefit the whole community?
I have more stories to share but this one has run a bit long, so I’ll write the next email sooner and make it shorter. Keep well.
P.S. Thought you might enjoy the photo of our version of a cabbage patch kid.
Marilyn Traugott retired in 2007 as manager of Mercy Hospice in Redding after a career that began with the program’s inception in 1978. Marilyn has an Ed.M. in counseling from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to working in hospice, other professional experience included teaching special education, developing medical education materials and counseling at-risk youth.