‘It was a journey I had always hoped to embark on and now it was a finally becoming a reality. The rhythmic chime of the oropendola; the jungle bird whose call rings, with its nest that swings and the pendulating pattern of its wings. Its name captures it all. As does the boat equipped with medical volunteers and supplies that sails between villages along the Amazon; the Amazon Hope.
The trip began with the flight from Lima, Peru to the town of Iquitos, located amidst the Amazonian jungle. As the aeroplane descended, the wide, winding river came into view, like a dirt track weaving through the mountains. Thick rainforest was packed against the riverbanks; rich greenery contrasting with the muddy flow of water.
Stepping off the aeroplane, the heat hit me like a puff of dragon’s breath. This is the jungle. Iquitos is a colourful, vibrant town, buzzing with traffic; taxis and motorbikes swarm the streets with a constant hum that lasts through the night, much like the mosquitoes.
We were whisked off through the dusty streets, accompanied by some of the Peruvian team, to the small portal town of Nauta, where streets are thick with market smells. From snakes’ blood to grilled grubs, these clustered market stalls left all your senses overwhelmed and a little raw. Bustled onto a fast water taxi, the team of medical volunteers jetted off to their place of work, sleep and play for the next two weeks: the Amazon Hope.
Honk, honk, honk. The sound of the boat’s bellowing horn would become our sunrise cockerel each day. Swinging off the cabin bunk beds around 6am, to capture some of the early morning light, I made my way up on deck to be welcomed by the animated, smiling faces of the children gathered on the bank in curiosity, to greet the Amazon Hope that will be treating their village.
I always started the day with some stretches. With little space in these compacted conditions, they formed an essential part of my daily routine, soon with the participation of the rest of the team onboard. Giggles from eagerly imitating onlookers were heard from the bank, their dark, wide, almond eyes desperate to be part of this display of bodily contortion. Devotions formed our lead up to breakfast, with the whole Peruvian and volunteering teams together, uniting in praise and song. This is not about religion, but about togetherness and the glorification of hope.
We then took a walk around our host town, whilst patients collected and registered on the boat’s deck. The plank between our boat and the muddy bank was set up each day with admirable invention and precision. There may be an occasional wobble or canoe to bridge the gap, but the Amazonian riverwater was never tasted.
Leaved roofs on wooden, stilted pillars with hammocks for beds and chickens roaming around under the floors, form the houses that line the village. As we strolled along the path, absorbing a plethora of sights, sounds and smells, children began to gather. A pair of big brown eyes look up at me as she takes my hand. She was eight years of age, she explained in softly spoken Spanish. Soon both my hands are taken and I was leading a group of affectionate, unaffected children around their village. Bare-footed and bare-souled, these are the children of the Amazon.
Back onboard, my surgery becomes a busy place. Remarkably well equipped for extractions and simple fillings, with my dental nurse, Ruth, to help me out, my Spanish comes into play. I am the only dentist as part of this team of volunteers, so my flow of patients is unrelenting, much like the Amazon. I am met with mouths displaying extensive decay, children and adults alike. I soon realise the difference in approach here.
I was not here to diagnose the extent of the problems. I was here to heal their pain. The philosophy is different: a carious tooth that has not progressed to painful symptoms will provide another six months, maybe more, of function. I spent the next days extracting A LOT of teeth, but it would be no service to extract them all. The Amazon Hope returns on a three-monthly cycle – to alleviate the presentation of pain.
Occasionally, I saw a healthier mouth where simple fillings were still an option, often in the anterior dentition. Sadly Coca Cola has even reached the Amazonian communities, in the disguise of ‘Inca Cola’. I did attempt to find every opportunity to educate: with my demonstration teeth in hand and toothbrushes to hand out, I presented some basic facts about toothbrushing and sugar intake during registration, in the hope that this may filter through some habitual change. I hoped that my mission to remove pain and infection would serve enough to allow function for the rest of their lives. There were those that showed their gratitude. A lady brought me a bunch of purple maize to say thank you and a few other patients took photos of me with their ubiquitous mobile phones.
There were tough moments too. Generally co-operation is excellent, especially from the children, but occasionally a tooth was taken out through tears. There were no options here: there is no referral, no giving antibiotics and waiting another week, no sedation or general anaesthesia. So when an abscessed tooth does not fully take the anaesthetic, it must still come out. There were indigenous tribes that spoke their own language, whereby the women only spoke via their husbands. Their fear was palpable. I managed to take a tooth out for one of these women. My hope is in the relief that will follow.
Our day finished just before sunset, when we managed to take a final preamble around the village, play volleyball with the locals, or if we were lucky, watch the dolphins dance, or if we were luckier, glimpse the pink dolphins play as the sun illuminated the sky in magnificent splendour.
Night fell and you could hear the oropendola chimes. The boat then moved onto the next village to deliver another day of Amazon Hope.
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