Hannibal heroes return home, tired but proud

Hannibal dental hygienist Donna Chaffee Blake, pictured in the center, performs dental services on a patient in Uganda for the Americans Serving Abroad Project. 

HANNIBAL — After assisting with much-needed dental work for hundreds of people in rural Uganda during a recent medical mission trip, Hannibal’s Donna Chaffee Blake had reason to smile.

Blake, a dental hygienist, and Hannibal’s Eileen Deloff, a registered nurse, were among six central New Yorkers who traveled to Uganda as part of the Americans Serving Abroad Project. The group regularly organizes these trips, bringing free health care and health education to those with extremely limited or no access to medical care.

Partnering with Hands of Action Uganda, they provided health care screenings, physical exams, lab testing, medications, treatment, dental care, reproductive health education, and nutrition education.

Blake assisted a dentist from Uganda and saw 145 patients over three consecutive long days. Then she spent the next two days cleaning teeth for dozens more.

“I would have to say I felt like we accomplished a lot in the days we were there,” Blake said. “If you had a toothache and we removed your tooth, that problem was gone. I felt like it was a good experience for the village and for us. But I was exhausted. Everybody on the trip was.”

The group left Syracuse and drove to JFK Airport in New York City. From there, they flew to Brussels, Belgium. After a short layover, they flew to Rwanda in east Africa. The next stop was Entebbe in central Uganda. They finally got to their hotel around 10:30 p.m. the next day. They got up early the following morning and drove to the village where they were to perform their work.

They were given a tour of the village. While there is a medical clinic there, it is not staffed, Blake said.

Setup and preparation came next. “There was a lot of setup. They had boxes of medication. We took a dental chair with us. They had to show us where we were going to be and we had to get everything ready for the next morning when the doctor and dentist came,” Blake said.

The next day was their first with the dentist and the doctor.

“They came three days in a row,” Blake said. “They were from Uganda, but they did not stay in the village. I was asked to assist the dentist, so I assisted her. Over the three days, she did 136 extractions.”

A teenage boy assisted them. “I taught him how to sterilize instruments,” Blake said.

The boy could also talk to people in their language. Many of them spoke English, and the newspaper and signs were in English, she said, so that made things easier.

While the dental work was busy, those working with the doctor were just as busy as 280 people were seen by them over the three days. In addition to treating patients (running out of some of the medications), they distributed 150 reading glasses, taught reproductive health to 100 boys and girls, and taught first aid to about 20 teachers and high school students.

Long days of work

Blake described what the work days were like.

“We were there to start work at 8:30 a.m. but we didn’t always have the doctor and dentist there, until they came. The first day it was like 11 a.m. Other days they were there before 9:30,” Blake said. “We worked until 6 p.m., but the doctor liked to be done at 5. The dentist and I worked past 6. Sometimes we worked in the dark. She would not leave if she still had kids in line to be seen.”

By the time Blake arrived each morning, there were already long lines of kids and adults waiting to be seen. They had been told that a doctor and dentist were going to be there.

Blake said the dental work over those first three days consisted entirely of extractions.

“This village had not had any dental services in at least eight years,” she said, mentioning that the residents had access to candy and sweets that led to tooth decay. There were also a lot of third molar extractions.

“After the three days, the nursing people did more education, and I cleaned teeth,” Blake said. “Two of the other ladies did all of the fluoride treatment and the dental education so that I could clean as many teeth as possible. I saw about 60 kids in the next two days to clean their teeth.”

Working conditions were challenging.

“Our light was a flashlight that was on a branch. There was no electricity in the school. It was actually a teacher’s office. I held a pen flashlight for every patient, and I had to hold it on. I held pen flashlights on all day,” Blake said. “We were still working when it was getting dark and I was holding a flashlight on a cell phone.”

Grateful for donations

Blake said she was grateful to those in Hannibal and the surrounding area who donated toothbrushes and toothpaste or made monetary donations to the mission trip.

“I received an overwhelming number of toothbrushes and toothpaste. The toothbrushes, the toothpastes, and the floss were given out to the kids. This village had over 800 kids. People donated enough that every child in the village got a toothbrush,” she said. “Also, money that was donated to me went for fluoride treatments for the kids. Fluoride treatments come in packs of 200. That’s about $400. We split them and bought extra brushes. We had enough fluoride treatments to give a fluoride treatment to every child. From donations I also bought the dental chair that we took with us.

“The village of Hannibal and the surrounding area really stepped up to donate. I got a lot of donations from people.”

All services were provided at no cost to the patients.

“Our organization, the Americans Serving Abroad Project, paid for the doctor and dentist to come. We paid for the medications that were ordered mostly from India,” Blake said.

Blake and Deloff shared a room in accommodations that were far from deluxe. There were two sets of bunk beds, so each got a bottom bunk and slept surrounded by a mosquito tent. While there was a bathroom with a flush toilet, there was no hot water. The cook would heat up water in the morning and bring in a good-size pail of water for baths, Blake noted.

When they weren’t working, entertainment was limited.

“We sat around and talked, played cards. The last night we were there we went for a walk in the village. I really enjoyed that,” Blake said. “When got there, the children and some women sang for us.”

Watching wildlife

After the work portion of the trip was over, the group went on a safari to Murchison Falls and visited a rhino sanctuary. Blake said she enjoyed the safari and saw lions, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, and lots of other wildlife.

“We had a bull elephant cross the road in front of us,” she said. “We had to wait until it was far enough away that it wouldn’t come back and charge us.”

The area was mountainous, and the weather was rainy, but not too hot. Temperatures were around 75-80 degrees during her stay.

Blake said people have asked her if she felt safe in Uganda.

“We never felt threatened or unsafe,” she said. “People were happy to see us.”

This was Blake’s second medical mission trip. Her first was to Ghana five years ago.

“As far as the trip, getting there, Ghana is easier. This community was a little better off because they do a lot of agriculture. They had bananas, rice, and corn. They had gardens and livestock. We didn’t see that as much in Ghana.”

After going on a boat on the Nile River, going on the safari, and seeing the rhino preserve, the group stayed overnight in Kampala and then went to the airport for the trip home. They left Entebbe and flew to Kenya and then to Amsterdam and to JFK before driving back to Syracuse.

It was a rewarding experience, but a tiring one. Lauri Rupracht, a nurse from Syracuse and the founder and president of the Americans Serving Abroad Project, said all six people who went on the trip were exhausted.

“It took us about two to three weeks to actually recover and feel like we were back to normal,” Blake said.

See www.americansservingabroad.com for more information.

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