“There are only two dentists for 30,000 people”

For years, Peter Aborn has been traveling from his practice in San Pedro to Shiroles in the Reserva Indigena de Talamanca as often as his budget will allow, spending several days doing operations and procedures without charge. His commitment and generosity have already been recognized by CNN, that put him on the top 100 list of ‘CNN heroes’ — a program that searches out unsung heroes around the world who give an exceptional service to others.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste are unheard of in some of the reserve’s communities, meaning that rampant decay and gum disease are common. Lack of accessible dental services makes it near impossible for teeth to be straightened, filled or replaced.

“I have seen periodontal disease (gum disease) in 8-year-olds and malocclusions (crowded teeth) in 12-year-olds,” said Aborn. “I saw a 3-month old child with active leishmania tropica, an insect-born disease that causes scarring sores, on her face.

“There are only two dentists for 30,000 people in this area, and some people would have to walk for days to get to their nearest practice. They just want the dentist to pull the tooth out, whether it can be saved or not. Who wants to risk the problem returning, and have to walk another 6 days to see the dentist again?” Aborn delivered the first dentures and did the first root canal treatments ever to be performed on the reserve. He says that the diet of sticky foods such as rice, beans and plantains, accompanied by sugary drinks and sweets, are to blame for the poor nutrition and dental diseases that abound in the area.

“I had a dental practice on Fifth Avenue before I came to Costa Rica. Now I was working with people who have almost nothing – they live in wooden huts and eat rice and beans for every meal. People say they are primitive, but soon I was wondering, just who is primitive? They have a wonderful philosophy of life, and in all these years I have never heard them complain.”

Aborn returned to San José to work, but uses part of his earnings to fund his “campos de trabajo.” He makes the trip, which involves transporting all their equipment to the base camp of Shiroles by kayak, an ancient bus without brakes and on foot, two or three times a year, with a dedicated following of students and specialists who volunteer their time.

Some of the patients have never seen a dentist before, and their first experience of it is a world away from the dental care available in Costa Rica’s cities. Stools and benches serve as dentists’ chairs, overhead lamps have not worked for a decade, and old coke bottles are rigged up as water holders for irrigation tools.

Despite this, Aborn stresses that standards are high, making sure that everything is thoroughly sterilized and that equipment almost reaches the standards that U.S. dentists are expected to achieve. When the base-camp practice opens in the morning, 30 people are already waiting, and people keep coming throughout the day. Mobile units head off to even more remote destinations to set up field practices for those who find it hard to reach the base camp.

During the latest campo de trabajo in January, more than 1,000 procedures were carried out on 400 patients during four and a half days. Each campo costs the dentists around $4,000, which mainly comes straight from their own pockets. Devastating floods in 2005 made things for the reserve residents even harder. The water washed away houses, possessions and food. “They lost what little they had,” said Aborn. “It was desperate. U.N. officials came and assessed the damage, but little was done. People focus on the problems in Afghanistan and Africa, but no one ever hears of the problems in Latin America. I want to wave a flag and say, look, there are problems that need to be dealt with right on your doorstep!”

Since then, Aborn has decided to turn his efforts into an official non-profit organization called Proyecto Talamanca, in the hope that this status will stimulate donations and allow efforts to be reinforced. Aborn and Boza hope that in the future they will be able to construct a health center that will provide a broader range of services, from physiotherapy to nutrition and medical care. A Web page for Proyecto Talamanca can be viewed at http://www.dentalmedicinecr.com under the dentistry articles section.


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