Dental student spends August tending to teeth in Zambia


Laura Rein, a graduate of the La Jolla High School Class of 2005, spent more than half of August pulling teeth in one of the poorest countries in the world, as she and a handful of other dental students and dentists provided care to people in Zambia, South Africa.

“We ran out of toothbrushes, and in three days, we screened more than 720 patients,” Rein said, adding that of that number, they performed oral surgery on 140 people.

Rein is a senior at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, Mass., and a volunteer with the non-profit, “Options for Children in Zambia,” which brings dental services to the rural village each year.

Tufts associate professor John Morgan, DDS, helped form the organization in 2004, and invited Rein to be part of a summer team of visiting dentists.

“He gave me the history and encouraged me to go to the village of Muchila, which has about 30,000 people, no electricity and no running water,” Rein said.

Morgan and two other dentists, along with Rein and two other students, left on Aug. 9 for an area in the country riddled with HIV, AIDS, unsafe drinking water, orphaned children, and a population that has little access to health or dental care.

They received a grand welcome from many people in Muchila who heard the team was coming. “All the women greeted us singing and dancing,” Rein said.

Camp was set up for them and consisted of small tents and personal shower bags that hung on hooks outside each tent. The dental service area took place inside “clinical” tents with a few chairs and tables for supplies.

Rein said a typical day began with breakfast made by a chef who cooked exclusively for the team, and then teaching an oral health class to the crowds of

people who lined up for dental treatment.

Each patient was screened for pain, and if surgery was required, he or she was sent to an oral surgery room where tooth extractions were performed without suction tubes, X-rays, drills, lights or reclining dental chairs.

Rein said they had to use bottled water and only had limited ways to sterilize the tools.

“We brought pain medicine and antibiotics with us and the people who received treatment were very appreciative. The closest dental care from the village is a 10-hour drive away,” Rein said.

Lusaka, Zambia’s capital has a dental school, but the graduates are referred to as “dental therapists,” not dentists. There are less than 60 dental therapists in the entire country, Rein said, and three of them worked with the American team during their August visit.

“They are just as qualified and very talented,” Rein said. “They also translated the Zambians native Tonga language into English for us.”

After spending five days at the village, the dental team traveled to an orphanage for the remainder of their visit.

Rein said they put sealants on the children’s teeth to help prevent decay, and topically applied fluoride to their teeth because fluoridated toothpaste is not readily available.

Rein plans to come back to the area after graduating and work with her mother, Diane Milberg, D.D.S, M.S.D. who has an orthodontist practice in San Diego and Coronado.

Rein said the trip cost about $3,200 and her portion was offset by a $1,000 fellowship from Tufts University Tisch College, money from private donations, and a fundraiser held at the university.