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Bringing smiles to Guatemala

Dr. Bob Schwegler reached a milestone on Sept. 28 —he retired after 44 years of practicing dentistry in Albany.  But he will continue to use his skills as he and his wife, Inez, a dental hygienist, travel to Guatemala to help disadvantaged people achieve better dental health. Sometimes daughter Dr. Naomi Lane, who is doing her residency in Pediatric Dentistry in Denver Children’s Hospital, accompanies them. Others from Central Minnesota who sometimes join the team are dental assistants Shirley Zenzen from Melrose, Cathy Lyon and Irene Schmidt from Holdingford; as well as dentists from St. Cloud, Dr. David Pull and Dr. Joe Wenner. They join a team from HELPS International, a Dallas-based organization which sends teams of dentists, nurses, and physicians in various fields to work on health, economic, and social problems in this poor Central American country, recently ravaged by mudslides. Accompanying the medical personnel are people who install efficient stoves which save on fuel and keep homes free of smoke and soot. Bob, who grew up in St. Anthony, Millerville and Alexandria, graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in 1966 and started a dental practice in Albany. Inez was his hygienist for most of his working years, in between raising three children.  They heard about their sponsoring organization through word of mouth. HELPS International, founded in 1984, is a non-profit corporation dedicated to alleviating poverty in Latin America.  Some of its projects, along with medical and dental services,  are marketing of coffee and other agricultural products, installing concrete floors in homes, improving methods of corn cultivation, making safe drinking water available, teaching and marketing native crafts, building schools, and encouraging education. The ONIL stoves, which its teams provide, take the place of traditional cooking stoves, which consist of a platform of stones in the corner of a home on which a fire is built. The new stoves, simply constructed of concrete, burn 70 percent less wood, minimize smoke, and help to prevent burns. An outside version resembles a large, galvanized pail. The medical personnel see a significant number of cleft palates and other deformations in mouths, hands and feet among those who cook with primitive methods. “A lot of us think the defects in mouths are due to the soot in the houses,” Bob says.  “People who put in the stoves say they’ve seen two inches of tar on the roofs. I put in a stove one day to see what it was like.” A typical week for the volunteers starts on a Sunday with an early-morning plane flight to Guatemala City.  The team of 60 to 100 is made up of physicians in fields of plastic and other types of surgery, obs-gyn,.and other specialties. They are joined by dentists, anesthesiologists, nurses, cooks, and stove installers. Translators are necessary for the next week, to translate not only into Spanish but one of the 22 assorted Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala. Teams bring their own food and plenty of bleach which serves to sterilize hands and sometimes equipment. They arrive late Sunday evening and spend the night in a hotel.  Early morning finds them on a bus negotiating switchbacks to a small village where they will set up their equipment.  Bob, who made his first of 10 trips in 1996, has always worked in or out of a hospital, but some make an army base their headquarters. “There are 20 or 22 hospitals around the country that the U.S. government built years ago, but they weren’t much utilized before we came,” he explains. “But after one of the big mud slides, they had a call for medical personnel from around the world.  A lot of the hospitals are staffed by Cubans.  They get the week off when we get there.” The team cooks take over the hospital kitchen. All of the dental equipment has to be carried in, including portable dental chairs of canvas and aluminum. Headlamps sometimes serve for lighting. Portable dental units and air compressors, which are kept in storage in Guatemala City, go along as well. “Some places there is no hot water, which means cold showers.  We sleep on cots. It can get cold at night, so this year I bought myself a better sleeping bag.” The day starts with a non-denominational prayer service.  Local missionaries have told people about the team’s arrival, so many adults and children, always nicely-dressed, are already waiting in line for this much-welcomed service. Bob says, “I saw a man carry his wife on a straight-back chair for eight hours to bring her to physicians.”  He notes, “The people we take care of are very low-income people.  They don’t have anything, but they’re happy.” Sometimes the dental team goes to schools to clean teeth, apply sealants, and treat cavities.  They pass out toothbrushes and floss, along with instructions on using them, and they try to have local translators talk to the parents about hygiene. Other times a medical doctor, dentist and pharmacist will go out to a remote village and see patients. “We see better oral health after we’ve been there a couple of years,” he says.  Armando Gordillo, a Guatemalan foreign exchange student whom he and Inez hosted some years ago, has become a periodontist in Guatemala City. Sometimes they backpack their equipment into remote villages, where they work out of doors. When they travel by bus or van, well-armed military go along.  “Earlier we rode in the back of pickups, but now we’re in vans,” says Bob. “It took some of the fun out of it.” Visitors, even well-meaning ones, have been known to be robbed, and some won’t travel after dark. But Bob says, “We have always felt safe traveling in groups.” On the following Sunday, their work done, they pack up and head for Antigua, a resort town which provides them with a little R & R.  There is an appreciation banquet on the last night.  Early Wednesday morning finds them heading for the airport and home, and another team takes their place. Not only is the Schweglers’ work unpaid, but each team member has to contribute $2000 to cover air fare and expenses.  Bob may pay an additional $500 to $1000 for supplies. “At one time, St. Cloud Hospital helped out the nurses, but I don’t think they do any more, so they have to raise funds.”  He notes that generous contributors, including one of his patients, have helped out on many occasions. The HELPS group sponsors a golf outing in July to raise funds. Check out or for more information on donations and volunteer opportunities to HELPS International.

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