When One Teaches Two Learn
In the summer of 1997, something special happened in Palo Blanco when PRHDR volunteer Sue Cote decided to set up a dental station behind the church under the welcoming shade of a grapefruit tree to escape the heat of the blazing hot Dominican summer sun. Joining her as an interpreter was first time volunteer, Williams Rodriguez, a high school student from nearby Pedro Garcia, a small pueblo in the mountainous countryside near Santiago. Sue remembers Williams as a quiet and timid, but determined young man who wanted to learn English. Williams also has a distinct memory of that first day; "I was assigned to interpret for the dentist, Dr. Baker, and the dental hygienist, Sue Cote. I instantly became fascinated with their work."
Sue returned to the DR with PRHDR for the next ten years, often twice a year, and for most of those years she and Williams worked as a team.
Williams recalls, "Sue and Dr. Baker were the ones who taught me a love for dental hygiene and public health. I was motivated to work with this team of dental professionals on every trip. After watching them work with patients, I dreamed of coming back to the DR to help PRHDR as a clinician, and not just an interpreter." Sue smiles when she reveals, "At first, he could not even look in a patient's mouth!" She adds, "Once he overcame that, he started to become very interested in dentistry." Sue remembers, "We talked about his interest in dentistry when I was there. On return visits, I would bring him books on dental hygiene. I gave Williams my mouth model from when I was in dental hygiene school to help him learn the anatomy of teeth." When Sue went to visit him in Presque Isle, Maine last September, he still had the mouth model she had given him back in the DR on the bookshelf in his office.
The late Carol Doane, former beloved PRHDR President, noticed Williams' interest and recognized in him an unswerving determination to pursue a career in dentistry. Williams explains; "I became close friends with Carol, who was in charge of one of the teams of nursing students. She was the one who made it possible for me to study in the United States. She arranged for my student visa and a merit scholarship to study at USM." At USM he earned a BA in French and went on to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene at the University of Maine at Augusta Bangor Campus. Williams says about Carol, "I'm so grateful for everything she did for me. She really helped change my life. I'd like to think she'd be proud of where I am now." Sue shares, "There are so many of the PRHDR people who worked together to help Williams fulfill his dream." Williams is currently working in Caribou, Maine in a dental office.
William's story came full circle last January when he returned to the DR with Partners, but instead of volunteering as an interpreter, he volunteered as a dental hygienist. He says about his recent trip, "I served as a dental hygienist and cleaned the teeth of about 23 children the day I was with the PRHDR clinic. I also held a few clinics in my old neighborhood, so in total I cleaned about 70 kids and adults...I remember how hard it was for me growing up in the Dominican Republic. In a way, I was just like those kids I helped. I didn't have much knowledge about staying healthy, so being able to help kids from my own country felt really valuable."
Sue is excited to be heading back to the DR with PRHDR this winter. She exclaims, "Who would have thought on that first day in a rural village as an interpreter with me, Williams would develop an interest in dentistry, pursue his interests and overcome so many barriers to fulfill his dream? This is just one example of the way PRHDR has touched the lives of the Dominicans, students and volunteers over the years."
And Williams agrees with Sue. He says, "I know that PRHDR makes a difference in the lives of so many people. I can't even count how many times I've heard Dominicans tell me how grateful they were for the services PRHDR provided them."
Williams worked throughout school at LensCrafters making glasses. After he graduated, he worked as a dental hygienist at a nonprofit startup pediatric dental clinic for a year. For the last two years, Williams has lived in Presque Isle, Maine in Aroostook County. He works in Caribou in a small private practice for Dr. David Smith who provided him with all the dental hygiene tools he needed for the trip last year such as a cordless prophy that made it possible to deliver dental care in any environment, even without access to electricity.
Susan Cote RDH, MS, former Board Member and Secretary of PRHDR, is the Program Manager of From the First Tooth: and adjunct faculty for Boston University School of Dental Medicine. She is a graduate of Boston University School of Dental Medicine with a MS in Dental Public Health. www.fromthefirsttooth.org