Treating Toothaches to Avoid Surgery

Toothaches are usually painful, annoying hiccups in our day to day life, but a quick visit to the dentist’s chair and a little more caution in what we eat for a week typically solves it. But, what if it wasn’t this quick of a fix? What if instead of going on your lunch break or leaving work a little early to solve this irritant, you would have to sell everything you had and travel for days all in the hope that you MIGHT find healing?

In the West African country of Senegal, where Mercy Ships is currently serving, there is less than one dental worker per 100,000 people. This number is much smaller than the reported 61 dentists per 100,000 people in the United States. In light of this statistic and those like it, Mercy Ships has worked in partnership with the countries we serve to help provide professional dental care as well as dental training and education.

The Mercy Ships clinic, run by volunteer dentists and hygienists, was created with the goal of reducing the impact of dental disease. During our time in Senegal, our volunteers have seen over 2,600 patients and have provided dental treatments such as restorations, extractions, cleanings, as well as education on preventative techniques such as how to properly brush their teeth.

For many patients, like Mariama, access to quality dental care is the difference between a life of pain or one without. This mother of five spent six months living with excruciating pain due to a terrible toothache. The throbbing ache in her jaw shot straight up into her head all day long.

After visiting a local dentist with no success, Mariama saw an advertisement for the Mercy Ships Dental Clinic on TV. Assisted by her sister, Mariama arrived at the clinic to have her toothache examined. Sure enough, Mariama had multiple dental abscesses and required more than one visit to the dental clinic. Once all of her infected teeth had been extracted, Mariama was able to smile without pain.

“Now, it’s gone,” she said. “There is no more pain. Before the extraction, I couldn’t eat solid food, but now I can eat again, and I am living.”

Dr. Pearl Burns, Mercy Ships volunteer lead dentist at the Dental Clinic, said that without intervention, the toothache would surely have turned into swelling. In fact, many of the patients who receive surgery onboard the Africa Mercy are suffering from preventable conditions, such as 26-year-old Salematu from Guinea.

Salematu suffered from a large tumor on her face, which began as a tooth infection in her upper jaw. Eventually, the infection developed into an orange-sized lump in her cheek that caused her nose to shift and eye to bulge out slightly, disfiguring her face. Left untreated, the lump continued to grow, forcing Salematu, a first-year nursing student, to drop out of school.

“I shouldn’t look like this,” Salematu said.

Afraid of her own face, she stayed home, embarrassed to be seen even by her own daughters. Luckily, Salematu was able to receive a life-changing surgery on the Africa Mercy. With her tumor removed, Salematu was overwhelmed with joy and hope for the future.

“I have plans to return to school now and chase after my dream of becoming a nurse,” she said. “I feel beautiful… I feel good… I feel hopeful!”

Although Salematu’s story ends well, surgery could have been avoided had she had access to proper dental care. As opposed to the 20-minute dental visits, maxillofacial surgeries take between two and six hours to complete. These stories illustrate the importance of regular dental care and how it reduces the need to treat toothaches, whilst avoiding complex maxillofacial surgery. We are so grateful to those who have made this clinic a possibility. Thank you to our supporterspartners, and volunteers who make this necessary program a success!