Destination inspiration

Mission trip proves transformative for recent graduates
August 8th, 2019

D4s (now alumni) who traveled to Guatemala last spring break (from left): Dr. John Ratliff, Dr. Dean Luttrell, Dr. Byanka Gonzalez, Dr. Angel Lopez and Dr. Pan Kaping

Guatemala isn’t your typical spring break destination. But a magical week of esprit de corps with Dr. T. Bob (aka Dr. Thomas Bobby Davis of Dallas) often tops dental students’ checklist of must-repeat experiences.

“Sometimes I am at a loss for words to adequately and appropriately describe what this trip is and what it does,” says Dr. Angel Lopez ’19, a pediatric dentistry resident at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “It is something I think everyone should experience.”

For eight years, students from Texas A&M College of Dentistry and the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston have embarked on Davis’ Guatemala mission trip. They share their dentistry gifts, under practicing dentists’ supervision, with the children of San Raymundo. For 35 years before that, Davis’ mission trips were in Mexico.

Some students “have caught the bug,” Davis says of those who return every year while in dental school and continue to come back as residents or practicing dentists. Lopez says he definitely plans to return someday as a mentor.

This past March, Lopez, Dr. John Ratliff ’19, Dr. Byanka Gonzalez ’19, Dr. Pan Kaping ’19 and Dr. Dean Luttrell ’19 (then D4s), along with Emily Watson and Delton Tatum (then D3s) and Destiny Lopez and Matt Pepper (then D2s), put away their phones for a week and immersed themselves in providing dental care and patient education for more than 750 Guatemalans, mostly children, Davis says.

“There is instant camaraderie from the minute we arrive at the compound that only enhances as the trip goes on,” says Ratliff, an oral and maxillofacial surgery resident at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.

During four days of clinics, the Texas group worked alongside students and faculty from the University of Francisco Marroquin School of Dentistry in Guatemala City. Alumni Dr. Joe Yarbro ’77, Dr. Stephen Sperry ’11 and Dr. Dylan Patrick ’15 were among the mentors on the trip.

“Some of these people have never seen the dentist or they are waiting for us to return after they saw us last year,” says Ratliff, who went on the trip three times while in dental school. “Their appreciation for us traveling down there is gratifying.” When children visit the clinic, they learn how to take care of their teeth, receive a dental cleaning and take home a free toothbrush.

“We’re trying to change a culture for a generation to have prevention and not disease,” says Davis, 2018 recipient of the American Dental Association’s Humanitarian Award. “You get those little kids to see these dental kids and they’ll never forget that experience. They’ll be motivated to take care of themselves because they love these students. The kids can go home and teach their parents.”

In just three years, he says, they’ve noted a 40% decrease in tooth decay. While their goal is prevention, restorative services are also provided, including occasional root canals, extractions and removable/fixed prostheses.

When the clinic closes up for the day, dental students and their mentors regroup for dinner.

“We work all day, have Christian fellowship in the evenings and stay up entirely way too late getting to know each other,” Ratliff says. “There are no greater friendships formed in dental school than those that exist from this trip.”

Davis admits he expects the students to work hard, and that means many early mornings. While dental care is the core focus of the mission, there’s still plenty of time for levity. When Davis told them one evening they could finally sleep in a bit the next morning, the students brainstormed an unforgettable yet comical retaliation.

“They all set their alarms for early and hid them under my bed. I couldn’t figure where one alarm was because of the reflection all over the dorm floor, and they were in their beds just laughing,” he says. “We have a lot of fun. It is a two-way street.”

Ratliff and Lopez say the mentor-mentee aspect of the trip is second to none. By working side by side with experienced dentists, the students soak up lessons about their shared profession and so much more. They feel at ease asking mentors about work/life balance issues, thoughts on running a business, faith and family.

After a very full week, they pack their bags and head back to Texas. Davis’ enthusiasm and energy for serving others stays with them long after they’ve gone their separate ways.

“Some of us come as strangers, but we leave like family,” Lopez says.

— Kathleen Green Pothier