Global health through oral health

Dental students provide charitable care in Kenya—and bring home experiences they’ll never forget.


(Edmonton) Sam is a 14-year-old boy from a Maasai village in Kenya. Despite already having his tooth extracted, he always found his way back into the A Better World volunteer dental clinic. During one visit, third-year dental student Leanne Grinde asked him if he had become a Maasai warrior yet—protector of his community. His response surprised her.

Sam said no. And that he wanted to be a dentist. So Grinde did the only thing she could: she let him stay and observe the volunteers. He proved to be a great translator for them.

Sam’s story is just one of the many experiences University of Alberta dentistry students bring back home. Each year, more than 15 students take part in missions around the world with non-profit organizations like A Better World, Kindness in Action and Dentistry for All.

“Even though you might just be pulling a tooth, they are so happy and thankful,” said Grinde. “It was nice to see dentistry in the realm of health care.”

Grinde, along with fellow dental students Mika Wierenga and Stephanie McCorkill, were in Africa from Feb. 7 to 22. Clinics were set up in three remote regions and nearly 200 locals received charitable dental care.

“A lot of them had walked for hours to come see us,” said Wierenga. “What’s amazing is that, as dental students, we were able to share the importance of oral health internationally. Going to a different country changes you. You could definitely see that a smile is universal.”

Wierenga noted that understanding the Maasai people’s cultural beliefs about oral care was invaluable. Many have their lower central incisors taken out as children, and they believe canines are bad luck. Most of these procedures are done without local anesthetic, with just a knife and rock, she explained.

The students treated patients who had infections, decayed teeth and abscess. They also taught preventative oral hygiene using local tools—an acacia tree branch for brushing teeth.

“Seeing some of the patients was shocking,” said McCorkill. “Some of the kids’ faces were swollen shut because of abscess. We don’t see kids like that here. Having little experience with this, it helped increase our skills.”