Local dentist takes her tools to Africa

Dr. Susan Grimes worked to not only clean teeth, but educate future generations about oral health and the dangers of sugar. Photo courtesy Susan Grimes
Dr. Susan Grimes worked to not only clean teeth, but educate future generations about oral health and the dangers of sugar.
Photo courtesy Susan Grimes

In her daily grind, a regular dentist might not imagine herself extracting teeth and filling cavities during the day and sleeping in a safari tent, listening to elephants trumpeting at night. Dr. Susan Grimes, however, recently found herself doing just that on a volunteer service trip to practice dentistry for the Maasai people in Kenya, Africa.

A few years ago, on another dental service trip to Thailand, Grimes met her friend Marsha, who suggested they go to Africa together to work at the clinic founded by Dr. Raymond DeMazzo, a dentist who traveled there years ago and has spent the last decades building up a clinic for the people in the surrounding area.

Dental care for the Maasai people is sporadic, at best, and many patients Grimes saw were seeing a dentist for the first time. Office visits in Kenya were markedly different than office visits in Shelburne; for one thing, the waiting room was the shade of a giant tree outside the clinic. Grimes didn’t need to take notes or a medical history, she said, because frequently patients walked many miles to come see her. “We figured if they were healthy enough to walk 24 miles, they were healthy enough for the treatment.”

The scope of issues that Grimes, Marsha, and the two Maasai dental assistants treated was out of the ordinary as well. She might not do any extractions during a typical two-week period at home, but Grimes said she did over 100 when she was at the clinic. The main problem she saw every day was tooth decay from the significant amount of sugar the Maasai people consumed.

“Coca-Cola is cheaper than water,” Grimes said. It wasn’t unusual to see someone walking around drinking from a two-liter bottle of soda, and Grimes said her goal was to educate her patients about the effect of sugar on their teeth, and try to convince them to at least rinse with water after they had a Coke.

Compounding the problem were all the tourists who gave the children candy when they came to visit the many area lodges for safaris. “We’d drive by and they’d be like, ‘Candy! Candy!’” Grimes said, “And we’d be like, nooooooo!”

She tried to mitigate the problem by throwing toothbrushes out the window, but said cultural and generational change is slowly going to have a greater impact. Through professional development with the full-time staff at the clinic, treating patients who were teachers and other members of the community who reached a wider audience, Grimes hopes her efforts to improve the general dental health of the Maasai people made some sort of impression.

In her time off, Grimes went on safari and got to see in real life the animals that she could hear from her sleeping tent at night, an experience that drove home just how far away from Vermont she really was. Because of the danger of walking through the bush alone at night when the animals were out, the clinic staff and patients had to leave early enough to make it home before dark.

One patient also showed up with a large stick he carried to ward off predators, but politely checked it at the door when he arrived, an experience Grimes never had back at home. She is currently working one day a week at a dental practice in Manchester, and figuring out where her dental career will take her next. One place it will take her again, for sure, is Kenya. “I will definitely go back,” she said.

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