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“Gringo dentist” returns to Amazon for humanitarian work

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 16 April 2013 at 12:00 am

Schiavone pulls teeth, promotes dental health in rural Peru

Dr. Schiavone in Peru

Photos courtesy of Dan Schiavone – Dr. Dan Schiavone of Holley is pictured with two children from rural Peru, where he spent a week last month providing dental care.

HOLLEY – For a week every March in recent years, Dan Schiavone packs his suitcases and heads out of country.

The Holley dentist doesn’t go on a joy trip or an escape from dental work. He fills four suitcases with toothbrushes, fluoride varnishes and toothpaste. He heads into the Amazon, visiting poverty-stricken rural villages in Peru, pulling teeth, applying fluoride varnish and promoting dental care.

“They are gracious and happy people,” Schiavone said at his Public Square office on Monday. “They appreciate everything you do.”

Schiavone is often greeted as “The Gringo Dentist” by Peruvian children and their parents. After making five trips since 2008, he recognizes many of the children, and they remember him.

He also notices better dental health. His first trip in 2008, he pulled 75 decaying and sick teeth. On his trip last month, Schiavone extracted 12 teeth.

“I’m seeing an improvement,” he said. “But I still see a lot of problems.”

Schiavone, 44, wasn’t alone on the trip. His daughter Kaci, 22, joined him on the March 9-16 journey. Kaci is a biochemistry major who will graduate in May from the University of Rochester. She helps her father in Peru, applying the fluoride varnishes and alerting him to bigger dental problems in the children.

Kaci Schiavone in Peru

Photos courtesy of Dan Schiavone – Kaci Schiavone checks a girl’s teeth and dental health during an exam in Peru last month. Kaci will graduate in May with a degree in biochemistry from the University of Rochester.

They do the work without modern dental equipment. Schiavone is grateful if he can sit a child in a sturdy chair. Sometimes the kids stand while their mouths are examined. If Schiavone has to pull a tooth, he will stack plastic chairs to make the seat more sturdy for the child – and ease his back-bending.

Many of the children feast on candy and soda throughout the day, and they lack toothbrushes, which has made their teeth vulnerable to decay.

“They drink too much soda,” Schiavone said. “They don’t realize it’s so damaging.”

Schiavone knows enough Spanish to ask a child if a tooth hurts. Often, they answer yes.

Dr. Schiavone in Peru

Photos courtesy of Dan Schiavone – Dr. Dan Schiavone of Holley does a dental exam on a boy in a make-shift setup in rural Peru. Schiavone has volunteered on five trips to the region, providing dental care to the rural poor. The community there is trying to raise money for a modern dental chair. (The boy is sitting on a stack of plastic chairs.)

He was looking for a opportunity to volunteer as a dentist in 2008, when he found Yantalo Peru Foundation on the Internet. The foundation was launched in 2005 to improve the health of people in a Yantalo. Luis Vasquez, a retired cardiologist from Chicago, started the foundation and a volunteer program for medical professionals to assist the Yantalo population.

Schiavone flies into Lima, Peru, and then takes a short flight into the Amazon, before he completes the trip with a two-hour car ride to Yantalo. He performs about 500 dental examinations during the week, sometimes hiking to more remote villages, places that have never seen a dentist.

The foundation is building a health clinic that should open later this year. Schiavone has been contacting dental chair companies about donating a modern chair and equipment to the site. He pulls teeth in Yantalo without compressed air, suctions, electricity and sometimes even water. Last year he donated oral surgery instruments so he and other dentists could use those tools without having to lug them on the trip.

With better equipment, Schiavone said dentists could better serve the Yantalo population. Right now they can’t do fillings, sealants or dentures because of the lack of modern equipment.

He intends to keep going back.

“I’m not going to just pick a new spot in the world,” he said. “Down there, I’m seeing a return on my investment. Things are getting better.”