Potomac resident Tris Kruger spends a week of his time and more than a bit of his own money to help people in a small town in the Dominican Republic.
“I get more out of it than I contribute. Of that I’m sure,” Kruger said.
He recently returned from one of his twice-yearly trips to the mountain town of Njarnaito, which he made with three other Washington-area dentists. “This past trip was the best we’d ever had,” he said.
The group, part of an organization known as Somos Amigos Medical Missions, flies into the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. Members of the group bring their own equipment, down to the fillings, and toothbrushes and toothpaste to distribute to the locals.
Kruger said that they sometimes have a problem going through customs at the airport, where some officials almost expect to be bribed. However, they found a way around that. “We were met by the papal nuncio [the Vatican's ambassador] of the Dominican Republic,” he said.
The man is so well respected that the dentists were able to get out of the terminal with all of their equipment.
It is then a six-hour bus ride, with the last two over dirt roads. “It’s probably two hours on the bus from the nearest stop sign,” Kruger said.
The group arrives on Saturday, sets up on Sunday and begins work on Monday morning. By Tuesday morning, word has traveled to the surrounding countryside, and up to 50 people can be found waiting in line for treatment at the clinic.
“The people are just so grateful. Of course you don’t do it for that,” Kruger said.
THE VISITING DENTISTS USED to do their work in the village chapel but then had a clinic built with cinder-block walls and a tin roof. Since most buildings in the village have thatch for roofs, the tin helps to maintain a more sterile environment. “I think we’re going to try and expand it this fall,” Kruger said.
The clinic, he said, is probably the most substantial building in the village, but it is still not up to modern standards in the United States. Patients, Kruger said, sit in lawn chairs propped up on cinder blocks when they are being examined, and the dentists use hiking headlamps to peer into mouths. But they are still able to provide quality care for the people.
“Our skills are sophisticated. Our techniques are sophisticated,” he said.
Over the course of the week, Kruger estimated that he saw 200 patients. In the United States he would probably see just over 20 in the same amount of time.
The dentists each had their own specialties, Kruger did most of the extractions. "We had a pretty sophisticated assembly line," he said.
In spite of the conditions and workload, Kruger said he feels lucky to be able to go.
“It’s just such a great thing to feel this,” he said. Those in the medical profession can provide vital services to people, just by doing the same job they do every day. “In our profession, we’re lucky we can do this,” he said.