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Medical-dental missions: A widening web of good and goods

By Jaileen Jimeno Published Jun 25, 2023 6:03 pm

The 73-year-old dentist could not help but be annoyed. The little girl, whose two teeth he just pulled out minutes ago, was back, getting in his way in the makeshift clinic. The medical-dental mission was in full swing, and the line of patients was long. 

“I was a bit angry. I asked her: ‘Is there something wrong? Can I do something for you?’"

She was shy. She said, ‘Sorry for disturbing you, but I want to give you a present.’” 

The little girl handed him a carton. Inside it was a tiny kitten, about two weeks old. The dentist was overcome by emotion.

“I started to cry. I told her to keep the cat, care for it, and when I come back, I want to see that the cat is well.”

Dr. Gerard Cyrus still tears up when he retells the story even after many years.

“These are moments that go to your heart,” he says. “This is why we come back.”

The German dentist says the gratitude and warmth of Filipinos are among the reasons he and his friends fly back to the Philippines two times a year.

Cyrus is just one of the dozens of foreign dentists who, since 2005, have been flying to and from the Philippines twice a year—at their own expense—to provide dental services to underserved communities. 

Dr. Gerard Cyrus and his team of Australian and British dentists trek to the site of the day's medical-dental mission in a remote part of Zambales.

Widening web 

It all began in 2003, when the family of Dra. Teresa Valenton-Yap, a medical doctor, put up The Lotus Foundation in Zambales to provide livelihood and medical support for indigenous and indigent families. Irene Valenton, one of Valenton-Yap’s relatives who lives in Germany, roped in Heinrich Treutner, a retired teacher who in turn set up Lotus Hilfsprogramme, e.V. in Germany in 2004.

Lotus Hilfsprogramme e.V raises funds and sets up various programs in Zambales and Olongapo City. It supports The Lotus Dairy Farm that supplies milk to undernourished school children in San Marcelino, funds the education of deaf-mute students whose graduates are hired by hotels and restaurants, supports a sewing program for single mothers who are hired by established footwear companies, and provides medical support for burn patients.

Valenton-Yap runs the Lotus Dairy Farm, which provides Aeta children and other school-age children with milk for three months or until their health is assured. Milk is expensive and unreachable for people living in remote areas. 

Sadly, Treutner died in February 2022 at the age of 85, raising fears that it would mean the end of the programs, too. 

“They are our main partner,” says Valenton-Yap. “Without Lotus Hilfsprogramme in Germany, I don’t know what else we can accomplish.” 

Stepping up 

But Cyrus, who admits he will avoid paperwork if he can, and his friends stepped up to the plate. Jonas Diefenbach took over as First Chairman, seconded by Dr. Cyrus.

Cyrus’s first taste of volunteer work in the Philippines was in the aftermath of Yolanda in November 2013. He accompanied Treutner and Valenton-Yap in buying and delivering motor-powered boats to fishermen in Tacloban. 

“I saw poverty but people were still caring for their relatives and other people,” he recalls. “I thought I should do something. How can I help?” 

He joined Lotus, and four weeks after returning to Germany, he was on a flight back to the Philippines for a dental mission. He has since been its most active champion and considers it his “baby.” 

A look at the sterilized dental equipment that will be used for the day

In the past years, Cyrus and dentists from all over Europe spread the word and many have joined to serve. There is a Dr. Myles from Australia, a Dr. Jane and a Dr. Oliver from the United Kingdom, as well as a Dr. Dieter, a Dr. Karl, and a Dr. Dita from Germany. Their dental missions have taken them to prisons, garbage dump sites, and Aeta communities in Bataan, Zambales, and Olongapo.

Emergency cases

Dental missions are not handholding sessions—every patient is way past basic dental care and is considered an emergency case. Each patient almost always has been in pain for months or years and tooth extraction is the only way to go. 

“Sometimes you must decide,” says Cyrus. “You are responsible, you need to pull all the infected teeth because the patient is in pain.”

He recalls pulling out 25 teeth from a patient in prison. A human being has 32 teeth. Despite being ambidextrous, Cyrus found himself having blisters in both hands after pulling out over 100 teeth in one day. Funding for health is low, and this is why the Lotus dentists and doctors keep prisons and jails on their list every year. 

The first batch of patients line up and wait to be served.

In a recent dental mission, Cyrus encountered a case he only read about and saw in his medical books: a girl of 11 whose teeth infection has chewed through her bone down to her lower jaw, where pus was leaking. 

“When you go to the Aeta in the mountains,” he says, “the kids have six to seven rotten teeth. They must have been in pain for years. I think they don’t know any better situation.”

The economic hurdle is difficult for families to overcome: the base rate for tooth extraction is P1,000. A wisdom tooth extraction has a price tag of P5,000, on top of x-ray costs. A family that relies on farming, fishing, or garbage collection, or a person in jail, cannot afford a visit to the dentist. 

“We are always short of money,” says Cyrus. “We could do a lot more.”

The dentists bring their own supplies and medicines to add to what Lotus is able to provide. They shoulder all the costs of flying in and staying in the Philippines.

Tokens and appreciation 

Limitations aside, Lotus’s dentists are able to treat as many as 600 to 700 people every May and November, the months of the medical-dental missions. 

“They wake up very early for six days and when the dental mission is over, they take the bus back to Manila, to the airport,” says Valenton-Yap, who is most of the time alone in carrying the medical flag of the mission. “All I can give them is a certificate of appreciation and some tokens every time they are here.”

Dentists pull as many as upwards of 80 teeth per day.

Valenton-Yap herself comes with her own medicines and vitamins for the patients who need her help. The medical-dental mission is also supported by some eight Filipino staff who have been a constant since the project began some 18 years ago.

“I will come back as long as I can handle the 25-hour flight,” says Cyrus. “I have a very good life. I have two wonderful kids. I have a house. I have a garden. To give back is easy for me, and I am sure the other dentists think the same way.”