Protecting smiles around the world
After almost 30 years treating patients in a Colorado private practice, Dr. Peter Vanicek is caring for patients around the world as dental director with Global Dental Relief.
Vanicek, a 1984 graduate of Baylor College of Dentistry, now Texas A&M School of Dentistry, said it’s been rewarding to continue his career post-retirement by serving in a different capacity.
“I was lucky enough to retire at 55, but when you retire, you lose a sense of community, so it was nice to jump into this,” Vanicek said. “I oversee the clinical aspects of the organization and lead five to six trips per year.”
Global Dental Relief (GDR) is a Denver-based nonprofit with a mission to provide free dental care to children in developing countries. It was founded in 2001 as the Himalayan Dental Relief Project by former director of Colorado State Parks Laurie Mathews and dentist Andrew Holecek. In 2003, adventure travel expert Kim Troggio joined forces with Mathews and Holecek to expand the work globally. Clinics are regularly held in Cambodia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal and the Appalachian community of Jenkins, Kentucky.
To date, 3,339 volunteers have provided more than $42 million in donated care to more than 199,596 children. Volunteers include dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants and individuals outside dentistry who may help chairside, checking in patients or completing paperwork.
“So many volunteer organizations are putting out fires and are primarily extraction clinics, but we pride ourselves in seeing the same population every two years,” Vanicek said. “Our clinics are 60 to 70 percent restorative and 20 percent oral extractions or surgeries. We stress preventative care and give related instruction.”
Vanicek said GDR coordinates clinics through local schools, and they see about 100 patients per day. Most of the patients are children, ages 6 to 18, but they also treat teachers and school officials. Because they return to the same locations regularly, it enables the children to receive ongoing dental care.
“In some countries, we’ve seen adults who we started seeing when they were small children,” he said.
Vanicek explained that GDR focuses on countries with a shortage of dental practitioners. For example, there is one dentist for every 1,800 people in the United States, he said. In Kenya, there’s only one for every 47,000.
“Because we have limited time to see children, we don’t work on the primary teeth; we focus on the permanent dentition – the teeth they’ll have the rest of their life,” he said. “We try to engage local dentists, too, as much as we can. We don’t want to step on the toes of the local dental population.”
GDR has planned 30 clinics for 2023. Each clinic lasts about six days, and two clinics are often scheduled back-to-back at the same location. Some volunteers stay the entire time and others help for one session or the other. At the end of each clinic, there are sightseeing opportunities for the volunteers, if they choose to participate.
Vanicek most often travels to Guatemala, Kenya and Nepal, where one of his most meaningful experiences occurred. He explained that GDR’s clinic in Nepal is unique because they work with a boarding school, and the students are of Tibetan origin, most of whom are far from their home villages. The school also has a health club, and the GDR team utilizes four club members as assistants during the clinics.
“One of our assistants had some missing anterior teeth, which had been missing since birth, and working with a local partner, I was able to find a local dentist to restore and replace her teeth,” he said. “Here’s a person who never would have had the opportunity to transform her smile and dental health. Now she’s really confident and laughs easily.”
Vanicek said through the years they’ve developed long-term relationships with students who have helped in the clinics, and many of them have gone on to dental school in Nepal and across Asia.
“It’s been nice to think you helped create the spark that encouraged them to pursue dentistry,” he said.
Vanicek’s wife, Dr. Liliane Brantes, ’84, also volunteers. The couple’s first trip was to India in 2012.
“We’ve met a lot of wonderful people who are volunteers,” Vanicek said. “I’m 65, and it’s been fun to connect with younger people in our profession. We’ve made new friends, and it’s nice to still be active in a profession that I really enjoyed.
“Having a community, meeting a lot of people and being able to travel is a combination of things that have been really rewarding.”
To learn more about Global Dental Relief, go to globaldentalrelief.org. Vanicek said he’s also happy to talk with prospective volunteers, and the office staff in Denver will gladly answer questions, too.