Exchange for smiles

Six Carolina dental students learned new methods in global dentistry during a service trip to Nicaragua last spring.

Dentists give students a demonstration
Photo by Ana Murillo, second-year student at the UNC School of Dentistry

A group of UNC School of Dentistry students traveled to Nicaragua last spring to help treat children born with cleft palates and experience the life-saving power of dentistry firsthand.

With the help of an international team of experts — including 20 local dentists in the capital city of Managua and orthodontists from Peru and Venezuela — the six students performed 500 procedures, from basic cleanings to pre-surgical treatments, for pediatric patients from under-resourced areas.

Founded by second-year dental student Ryan Cody, the Exchange for Smiles project is a partnership between Carolina dental students and Nicaragua’s Operation Smile clinic, which provides education and treatment for children.

“It was really a dream come true to be able to volunteer as a dentist with them,” said Wendy McIntosh Song, a member of Carolina’s group. “It was a really holistic mission trip, and it’s very encouraging to see something that was so empowering for the locals and so sustainable for the patients.”

The service trip was just one of the 10 international service and outreach trips the UNC School of Dentistry offers. Each year, students provide dental care to patients in China, India, Malawi, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, the Philippines and Uganda.

Over the course of a week in Nicaragua, students learned new methods in global dentistry through lectures, demonstrations and direct patient care.

“If [Carolina] students weren’t comfortable with a procedure, we would just assist. If we were comfortable, the Nicaraguan doctor would watch and encourage,” Cody said. “The students ended up gaining so much more confidence because we got to have this one-on-one exchange. It was amazing.”

McIntosh Song, a 2018 graduate of the UNC School of Dentistry, said the volunteers at the Nicaragua Operation Smile clinic, who ranged from oral surgeons to pediatric dentists to psychiatrists, provided a prime example of patient-centered care.

“I’ve wanted to work with Operation Smile since I was little,” she said. “The work they’re doing is so impactful. You can imagine the stigma that these patients face in the real world, and the volunteers in Nicaragua really focus on changing the message to how much the patients have overcome instead of how much they’re afflicted with.”

Of the nearly 250 patients the students treated, one patient stands out for Cody: a 15-day-old baby whose cleft palate prevented him from drinking milk.

“We didn’t have him on the schedule, but the parents showed up at the door with this baby wrapped in blankets, and he was suffering from extreme malnourishment,” Cody said. “We knew that if we didn’t act soon, that baby was going to die.”

Operation Smile’s cleft palate experts showed the dental students and local volunteers how to fit the patient with a maxillary device, which would allow him to swallow.

“The patient came back the next day, and we saw him drink milk for the first time. It was incredibly powerful,” Cody said. “People were in tears and hugging each other. These are the success stories of patients that bring us together as a team.”

Although the students have returned to Carolina, they continue to follow-up with their fellow dentists and patients from Exchange for Smiles.

This fall, several Operation Smile volunteers will travel to Chapel Hill to share their techniques with more UNC School of Dentistry students.

As for Cody, the biggest takeaway was a desire to continue learning and improving throughout his career in dentistry.

“For me in life, the most two important qualities are health and happiness, and in the dental profession you get to provide both health and happiness simultaneously,” he said. “You can help a patient smile and be healthy at the same time, and that’s a huge responsibility and a huge privilege.”