If not a reason to smile, a commitment to help
Madison dentist treats impoverished children in Guatemala
By SALLY CAPONE
MADISON – There are not many experiences that are truly life-changing, but Dr. Samuel Romano says he believes he found one in the slums of a Central American country.
As part of an 18-member team, he traveled to Guatemala for one week in February to offer much-needed dental care to poor children. “I always wanted to do mission work, but I didn’t know how to go about finding the best, organization,” he said. When Dr. Gregory Keiser, a Morristown oral surgeon and board member of Healing the Children, asked Romano if he would be interested in a trip to the Central American country, he leapt at the chance. “I said, ‘I’m going – I don’t even have to think about it’,” Romano said.
‘It Shocked Me’
The trip was not an easy one emotionally, physically or financially, he said, adding that even before they left the U.S. getting through the airport was an ordeal. The team met at Newark Liberty Airport at 4a.m. on Feb. 6. “It shocked me how demanding it was,” Romano recalled of the rest of the trip.
“There was a lot of lugging,” he explained, because the team had to bring every bit of the dental supplies they would use, including gauze and sterile wipes.
In the Guatemalan city of Antigua, “All they gave us was a room to work in,” said Romano, who had to treat patients while bent over cafeteria tables covered with tablecloths procured by the team.
To improve on the meager lighting, Romano purchased a $600headlight. His total expense for the trip was $5,000, all out of pocket. After spending each night in a hotel room that was so small he couldn’t even open a suitcase, Romano and the team faced 10 hour workdays.
“When we got to the facility at 8 a.m., the lines of people waiting for us were as far as you could see,” Romano said. Because of the poor diet, lack of dental hygiene, and the large intake of “junky candy,” many of the children had rotted teeth.
“I did a lot of extractions and fillings,” said Romano, who speaks no Spanish and relied on two people on the team who spoke the language. Admitting that he’s hooked, “When you have a kid scared out of his mind, you learn how much non-verbal communication matters,” Romano noted. After handing out tooth- brushes, probably the only ones the children will ever get, a dental hygienist gave instructions in dental care. Romano worked on hundreds of children during his week in Guatemala. Experiencing such poverty first-hand has left an indelible impression.
‘How Good We Have It’
“I’ve lived in Madison all my life, and I didn’t realize how good we have it,” said Romano, who lives on West Lane. “It’s one thing to see pictures, and another to smell, feel and touch what it’s really like. Nothing is clean, and everything is covered with grit. It changes how you look at life. We waste time on trivial things, and never reflect on what’s important,” he said. After his heart-wrenching week, Romano was jarred backed to reality while on the plane trip home.
“The guy next to me on the plane was annoyed that he couldn’t get a cheeseburger,” Romano recalled.
“I realized I was back,” he said. Admitting that he’s hooked, Romano plans to go to Africa next year with the organization. Keiser, who’s been affiliated with Healing the Children for 15 years, has traveled to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Cambodia and Madagascar.
“People who go on these trips have two reactions,” Keiser said. “Either they will never do it again, or they can’t wait to do it again,” he said.
Healing the Children was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1979. The Northeast chapter, based in New Milford, Conn., was created in 1985, and has since arranged treatment for more than 33,000 children in the U.S. and abroad who lack adequate access to medical services. The all-volunteer teams travel at their own expense, and in addition to dentists include surgeons, pediatricians, anesthetists, nurses surgical technicians, and specialists in plastic and reconstructive surgery, urology and cardiology.
For information, visit www.healingthechildren.org.