March 24 11:31 AM

Smiles across the miles

Almont's 'gentle dentist' Dr. Kathleen Wells embarks on medical mission

Although some of the equipment was rudimentary, Dr. Kathleen Wells saw more than 250 Kuna people while on the remote San Blas Islands of Panama as part of a Wesleyan Medical Missions team this April.
June 20, 2007
Despite continents or borders, beyond the hurdles of language or culture, humankind is rather homogenous, Dr. Kathleen Wells discovered.

After meeting and treating hundreds of men, women and children during a week long medical missions trip to the remote San Blas Islands of Panama in April, Wells said she realized they weren't all that different from the patients she's seen in her Almont dental practice during the last 21 years.

"They just want a better life for their families...moms want the best for their kids," she said of the Kuna tribe peoples.

So naturally, the relief and treatment the team could offer was well received. Including Wells, the Wesleyan Medical Missions team consisted of a physician, two nurse practitioners, a massage therapist, pastor and others who dispensed eye glasses and medicine.

Wells' husband, John McNeely, and others came along to assist. Having extra, willing hands made it possible for the doctors to see hundreds of patients. For Wells, that figure was 258 patients, from 2 to 80 years old, in five days on three islands. Most of them had never received any dental care.

"Most have never seen themselves in a mirror," she added.

With the help of John and a dental assistant, Wells extracted 260 teeth.

"I had to take all my own equipment—gloves, masks, anesthetics, extraction equipment," Wells said.

As for the rest, improvisation was key. Stackable chairs stood in for the typical examination seat and flashlights, shone over Wells' shoulder, in place of an overhead light.

Then there was the heat. Average temperatures hovered in the 90s to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It was a challenge...I had to figure out what did I take to make it work," Wells says matter-of-factly but in the next breath adds with a smile, "it was a neat experience."

She averaged about 52 patients per day. Some desperate for care waited eight to ten hours in line.

"I had to turn people away," she recalled sadly.

Abscessed teeth and infections were common in the islanders she saw.

"Coconut is a mainstay in their diet and that's why there's a lot of tooth decay," Wells said.

"Most people had a minimum of four teeth that needed to be pulled."

Some could have been wary of the medical attention, but Wells said, she was told word spread quickly that she used Novocaine.

"I was told 'you're known as the gentle dentist," she said.

Besides the tools and expertise, Wells credits prayer for making the procedures go smoothly.

"If we had a hard extraction, we just prayed over the teeth," she recalled.

"We only left two root tips behind and half (of the procedures) could have been surgical extractions."

The team also handed out toothbrushes and mouth mirrors, pain medication and antibiotics.

"We could have used four or five dentists," Wells said.

The rest of the team was kept busy with treating problems with parasites, fungi, skin infections, respiratory problems and other conditions related to hygiene.

Despite the obvious hardships, Wells found the Kuna people to be happy and friendly whether it was transporting the team from island to island in dugout canoes or worshipping together at a church service on Easter Sunday morning.

It didn't take long for Wells to realize how blessed she is, she recalled.

"To be born in America is to be born into royalty...even our poorest have so much more than these people," Wells said.

The average Kuna earns $125 per year, mostly on the beautiful and colorful handiwork they so expertly produce.

"If they have relatives in Panama City they will send them their work to sell in the open air markets there," Wells said.

Naturally, the team members came home with a number of the items including molas, or cloth panels with intricate applique work made to wear on clothing.

The typical Kuna diet consists of rice, plantanos and anything they could get from the sea such as octopus and conk fish.

Wells said she stuck with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and protein bars just to be safe. The team relied on bottled water too. As to be expected, there was no sanitation system on the islands they visited.

With just a little help, life on the islands could improve greatly. There is potential, the team agreed, to develop a system to get Kuna handicrafts to a large audience.

"One of our discussions was also about getting some organization into the islands to teach them what to do about trash and sewage," Wells summarized.

The team did what they could financially, too, for the people. Wells said they gave money to a large family that lost all of their possessions in a fire.

"They were amazed. They said 'we don't even know you,'" Wells said.

They also learned of a husband and father who was seriously injured in an accident and a native physician couldn't do any more to save him.

"We donated money so he could go to a hospital in Panama City," she added.

Again, the people were in awe of the team's generosity whether treating the sick or giving money to the less fortunate. Most of the time they couldn't say 'thank you' but their body language made up for the words, Wells said.

"Our eyes...there would be a connection and you could tell they were so grateful."

Assistant Editor
Castle Creek
03 - 24 - 19
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