Toronto dental student Clara Zhou says her first trip to the Caribbean island of Grenada last summer – not for holiday – was a “life-changing” and “eye-opening” experience.
In August 2022, the 22-year-old joined a group of Canadian dentists, hygienists and other students from the University of Toronto, who travelled to the tiny island nation to give free dental treatment to locals there.
“It was really special for me because it was my first introduction into real clinical dentistry,” said Zhou.
At a makeshift clinic set up at the island’s national cricket stadium, the volunteers were able to treat more than 2,000 patients – which is two per cent of the population – over 15 days.
The treatments ranged from filling cavities, restorations, extractions and cleaning to root canals and dentures.
“Every week, which is made up of about five clinical days, we aim to see and treat for free about 750 local patients,” said Michael Carabash, a dental lawyer in Toronto, who has been organizing the annual trips to the Caribbean for Canadians since 2015.
Each year, hundreds of Canadians go down to Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Turks and Caicos to run the dental clinics over six to eight weeks — and this year, they are also looking to add Sint Maarten to that list.
The initiative is funded by the Sandals Foundation, which provides free accommodation; Henry Schein Cares, which donates dental supplies; and U.S. no-profit Great Shape! Inc., which sets up the large temporary clinics.
In Turks and Caicos in October 2022, volunteers from Canada, the United States, Grenada and Jamaica performed more than 3,500 dental procedures and distributed more than 13,000 toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss.
For the upcoming summer, a new Seal Grenada project is being launched across the country’s schools to provide pit and fissure sealants and topical fluoride varnish. The goal is to seal the adult teeth of all of Grenada’s 30,000 kids as preventive care in the next three years.
“For us to do all the kids’ teeth in a period of three years, it’s a huge undertaking. Us Canadians can have a huge impact on this entire country,” said Carabash.
Dr. Kostantina Abate, a general dentist in Toronto, who has made multiple trips to Grenada for outreach work over the past several years, is well aware of the challenges the people there face and why their work is instrumental.
“Some of them wait from year to year for us to get there for free clinics, something to happen, because they really cannot afford private dental care,” said Abate.
She says access to dental care is minimal in Grenada as there are only a handful of dentists on the tiny island. There is also a lack of education and awareness about oral health care, Abate said.
On her last trip in 2022 towards the end of the three-week-long clinic, she recalls treating a 10-year-old girl whose front teeth were in such bad shape, she was embarrassed to take her mask off.
Abate ended up performing three root canals to fix the girl’s teeth and bring her smile back.
“When she left there, she was numb, but smiling ear to ear.”
Laura Iorio, a registered dental hygienist and clinical professor at the University of Toronto, is looking forward to making her first trip to Grenada for the program this year.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to be involved in something like this,” said Iorio, who is also the vice-president of Gift From the Heart, a Canadian charity that provides essential oral health-care services to people in communities who can’t afford or access it.
She says dental care is directly related to overall health and is hopeful their efforts can better people’s lives in the country.
“I personally believe that … dental care, it should be a right, not a privilege and unfortunately, for so many people, they just don’t have that right.”