Medicine & Healthcare, Dentistry in Bolivia by Michael Johnson
I am still buzzing from my experiences in Bolivia. I had planned to observe dentistry in a developing country to support my university application, but the experience was much more valuable than I could have imagined.
Of all the places I could choose to volunteer, I selected Bolivia. My reasons vary, and apart from observing dental practices abroad, I also wanted to use the opportunity to improve the level of Spanish I had learnt in school. South America was an obvious choice, having a huge Hispanic influence, and offering the opportunity to become immersed in a number of totally different cultures.
Bolivia, however, was a more difficult decision. I was torn between Mexico and Bolivia, but after doing a bit of research on the two countries, I decided that Bolivia would offer the greater experience for me. With friendly people, the highest proportion of indigenous persons in South America, and numerous opportunities for excursions on the weekend (I had planned to cycle the “Road of Death”, but unfortunately couldn’t fit it in to my busy schedule; there were far too many opportunities!) my decision was made.
Upon leaving I was filled with all the usual worries of travelling; What if I don’t like the people I’m staying with? What if they don’t like me? What will I do in the evenings and on the weekends? Will I get some incurable tropical disease? But all those things faded pretty quickly. My host family was amazing and very welcoming; they struck the perfect balance of looking after me, and allowing me my own space and independence.
Arriving in Bolivia I experienced a bit of culture shock. In part I think it was due to the obvious disparity between the rich and the poor, but also the fact that life is so different from the United Kingdom. Street vendors on every corner selling sweets, food, fruits, drinks, and magazines, bought a whole new meaning to the term corner-shop.
Bolivian food is delicious and filling and I highly recommend the salteñas, empanadas, humintas, pique macho, and late-night silpancho. Not to mention Dumbo’s (a multi-storey ice-cream parlour and restaurant), which is an absolute must for those with a sweet tooth like me.
Of the things I miss most, the food comes a close third to the people, who have a great sense of humour, and the scenery, which is beautiful. Cochabamba is surrounded by mountains, and you must go to the Cristo de la Concordia to get a view over the city. The only negative about the mountains is being woken up suddenly by the quick sunrise at around 7.15 am every day; I can confirm this is particularly annoying if you’ve had a late night!
I have fond memories of my placement as well. I was working at Centro de Salud, Sarcobamba. I began work at 8am and finished at around 12pm. Mostly I assisted the Dentist, Dr Pardo, by working as the dental assistant, washing and sterilising equipment and helping to prepare materials for fillings. I was able to observe many procedures, and see some examples of dental neglect that I hadn’t been able to see whilst shadowing in the UK.
As the weeks went on I was given more and more responsibility and I learned to administer anaesthetic injections, performed extractions and cleaned and prepared teeth during root canal treatments. The majority of the patients were either children or new mothers as a government scheme provides free/reduced cost treatment for these categories.
Staff at the centre made me feel needed, and when there were too few dental patients I was able to help the doctors in accident and emergency, or in consultations.
Bolivians have a great sense of humour, and if you do too you’re certain to have fun on your placement. Understanding the mentality and general vibe will really help you to interact better in your work-place and with your host family.
A word of warning to all budding explorers; the transport in Bolivia is something else. Initially I hated it because it was so different, and I didn’t understand how it worked. By the end of my trip I loved it, because it is so different. On more than a few occasions I got on the wrong trufi or forgot to get off at the right place (daydreaming is definitely not something to do when you are meant to be paying attention to where you are stopping). Once I ended up over an hour late for work one day because I missed my stop and ended up in the next town, Quillacollo!
Despite everything that can happen, the majority of my experiences were well worth the effort. If you are dithering on whether to spend some time abroad I would encourage you to just do it. You’ll make new friends, see fantastic places, try new foods, and have the opportunity to make a real difference. Plus you’ll have plenty of fun adventures to tell the grandkids about!