Bringing Smiles and Essential Dental Care to Refugees in Tijuana

By Elbert Tom, MPH, DDS

The volunteer UCLA dental students and faculty.

In an impactful display of professional duty and altruism, a team of 30 UCLA dental students recently engaged in a dental mission to Tijuana, Mexico. This initiative, conducted in collaboration with the Refugee Health Alliance and Kids Community Dental Clinic in Burbank, CA, aimed to offer dental care to Central American refugees in the process of seeking asylum.

The mission took place in an undisclosed location in Baja California, where a shelter within a church housed refugees in harsh conditions. The population included children requiring dental interventions such as extractions, cleanings, silver diamine fluoride preventative services, fluoride applications, sealants, and oral health instruction.

A brave refugee child.

The UCLA dental team, motivated by professional responsibility, worked diligently to address the pressing dental needs of the community. The shelter was inaccessible to cars following the rains, so the dental team hiked in mud carrying instruments and supplies. Despite resource limitations and high demand, the students worked continuously, foregoing breaks and overcoming logistical challenges to ensure that each patient received necessary care.

As the day progressed, the demand for dental care increased, emphasizing the considerable unmet dental needs within the transient refugee community. Even in the face of material shortages, such as running out of gauze, the dental team displayed resilience and adaptability, finding solutions to ensure the continuity of care. By the day’s end, the team had attended to 121 dental patients (an unprecedented amount), providing a range of services, including 121 oral exams with OHI, 115 prophylaxes, 100 fluoride applications, 39 extractions, 54 SDF treatments and 17 GI/sealants.

Providing care in an impromptu dental chair.

Collaboration played a pivotal role in the mission’s success, with students supporting each other to navigate challenges and provide optimal care under the most difficult of circumstances. The unity displayed by the dental students illustrated the potential collective effort in the face of adversity.

Beyond dental services, the team distributed a few toys and stickers to bring some joy to the children. This small gesture highlighted the positive impact that care, even in challenging circumstances, can have on vulnerable community members.

The families served at the shelter face uncertain futures, with some continuing their journey to another shelter, while others returning home or venturing northward. This underscores the transient nature of their circumstances and the urgent need for timely healthcare interventions.

For the UCLA dental students, this mission served as a practical educational experience, extending beyond the traditional classroom. It emphasized the significance of professional duty and deepened their appreciation for the knowledge and skills acquired during dental school training. This mission will likely shape their future practices, fostering a commitment to humanitarian dentistry and positive change in the lives of those they serve.

About the Author

Dr. Elbert Tom is Group Practice Director and Health Sciences Assistant Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Dentistry.

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