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Reasons to smile

October 15, 2011
By Deb Gau , Marshall Independent

It was an "overwhelming" experience, but one he would gladly do again, Dr. Michael Thomas said. As a volunteer on a mission trip to Haiti earlier this fall, Thomas, a Marshall dentist, saw the hardships the Haitian people still have to live with after a deadly earthquake in 2010. Sometimes it seemed like his efforts to help, providing dental care for children in a Port-au-Prince orphanage, didn't go very far in comparison.

"I said, 'I don't feel like I'm doing enough,'" Thomas said. But he said members of the volunteer group told him it was better to feel overwhelmed and do something than to feel overwhelmed and do nothing.

Thomas was part of a trip that left for Haiti on Sept. 21 and returned Sept. 25. In the course of three days, Thomas checked the teeth of children and adults living at an orphanage called Mephibosheth House. The children at the orphanage ranged from the age of 4 to about 16 or 17, and had physical or developmental disabilities, Thomas said.

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More than a year after a deadly earthquake struck Haiti, tent cities are still a common sight around Port-au-Prince. Marshall dentist Dr. Michael Thomas got to meet some of the residents of Mephibosheth House, an orphanage caring for disabled children, during a volunteer trip to Haiti in September. The children were Thomas’ patients during the trip.

"Some actually have families," Thomas said, but were brought to the orphanage because their families could not adequately care for them.

Thomas said was offered the chance to volunteer through family and friends.

"My father-in-law has a friend, Steve Hanson, who is a pastor in the Twin Cities," Thomas said. Hanson had made several mission trips to Haiti, and asked if Thomas would be interested in helping.

The volunteer group rented the office of a local dentist, Dr. Regine Bordes, while Thomas helped work on the teeth of 37 children and six staff members from the orphanage.

"We took care of everything, from 25 extractions to 35 fillings," Thomas said. It was the children's first visit to a dentist.

"They all came in (to the office) at one time, and everyone waited quietly," Thomas said. The kids and the orphanage staff passed the time by watching soccer on TV in the waiting room, he said. "They had a great time. They actually looked forward to going to the dentist."

Many people in Haiti can't afford regular visits to a dentist, and may only see one if they need a bad tooth pulled out, Thomas said.

Toothaches are something many people just lived with.

Thomas said one challenge for him was helping the kids feel at ease in the dentist's chair, especially since he couldn't speak Creole.

"They taught me how to say 'Open wide' in Creole, and they taught me how to count to 10 for when I would count teeth," Thomas said. Dr. Bordes and the pastor of the church supporting the orphanage were also in the room to help interpret and to reassure the children.

Thomas was able to share his experiences with friends and family back home through Facebook.

"I did kind of a daily update for everyone," he said. He also had a chance to visit part of the Haitian countryside and observe daily life.

Thomas said he started getting a sense of the poverty and need in Haiti right from the beginning of the trip.

"When we first arrived at the airport, everyone and their brother wanted to carry our luggage," Thomas said. It was also a shock to see how much devastation remained in Port-au-Prince more than a year after the earthquake.

"I had never seen anything like it," he said. "Earthquake rubble is still sitting everywhere," and thousands of people are still living in tent cities. Thomas said some of the people he met felt frustrated with the United Nations, and that not enough foreign aid was going directly to the people of Haiti.

The stories of the children at the orphanage could be overwhelming, too, Thomas said. One of his patients, a boy about 10 years old, surprised him by crawling into the examination room on his knees. The boy didn't have the full use of his legs.

"He had calluses on his knees. That was just how he got around," Thomas said.

But despite struggles, life went on. The church congregation supporting Mephibosheth House held Sunday services in a large tent, while Sunday school classes where held near the ruins of the church building, which was destroyed in the earthquake.

Thomas said he would like to go back and do more volunteer work if he got the chance.

"I would love to," he said. "I don't think this was a one-time trip."



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