Have you ever cheered for your dentist like she was a rock star? No? Well, that’s the sort of greeting dentists receive on the Philippine island of Bohol. In February, Cocofloss co-founder and dentist, Chrystle Cu, returned from her second trip to the island, where she and other volunteers were greeted like celebrities.
If you grew up with regular dental checkups, you may be surprised to learn that oral diseases affect half of the world’s population (That’s 3.58 billion people!) and the most common condition is tooth decay in permanent teeth. To help youngsters in Bohol keep their smiles, Chrystle works with Philos Health, a nonprofit that provides medical and dental care to the island’s underserved, rural communities.
We chatted with Chrystle about the kids of Bohol, the dental challenges they face, and how we can all protect our pearly whites. Read on and never take your healthy grin for granted again.
What first drew you to Philos Health?
My parents are from the Philippines, and I’ve always wanted to give back to their home country. When you visit, it’s hard to not notice the stark socioeconomic differences. To get from beautiful shopping malls to world-class resorts, you pass through shanty towns where children can’t afford shoes. I sat through many car rides where I felt awkward and uncomfortable seeing such extreme poverty through tinted windows. I didn’t want to just look through the window. I wanted to help.
When was your first volunteer trip with the organization?
In 2017, I traveled with Philos to Jagna, a town on Bohol’s southern coast, for the first time. It had been something I’d been wanting to do for years, but between building my dental practice and Cocofloss, it had been hard to find time for volunteering outside of the country.
Not everyone looks forward to dentist visits. How do the kids respond to you?
The kids are always curious and excited to meet us. They get out of class for a little bit to have their teeth checked and treated. They see it as a fun little excursion and don’t seem to have any fears or aversions to having their teeth looked at. Getting to hang out and chat with them at school is really fun for me, too. They’re all so cute.
Your boyfriend’s team got a particularly exuberant reception on this last visit.
Yeah, he had a blast. He went with some other volunteers to five elementary schools, where they applied fluoride treatments to all the students’ teeth. These kids don’t have any access to dental care, and they all had tooth decay. But they were cheering and screaming thank you at these volunteers. They felt like they were being visited by celebrities.
On this recent trip, you saw kids from the area surrounding Jagna. How did that experience differ from your first trip?
On my first trip in 2017, I exclusively saw children who attended Jagna Central Elementary School, where Philos runs a permanent dental clinic. The children from the surrounding schools that I saw in February this year had never seen a dental professional in their life.
The differences between the two groups were night and day. All of the kids I saw this time were suffering from rampant tooth decay. The pain made it hard to eat and left them in tears. It was heartbreaking. The first morning we were there, one hundred children ages 6 to 12 were lined up to have their decayed teeth pulled. I felt like the Grim Reaper.
When you have to pull a tooth out, it’s a failure. It’s the last possible resort. In my practice, for example, I think I’ve done it for a child once. I do everything I can to save teeth for my pediatric patients.
Is there one patient in particular who stands out?
On this last trip, I saw a sixth grader who was missing all of her back permanent teeth. Even in this country, if you’re missing all your back permanent teeth, there’s nothing you can do besides get partial dentures. Can you imagine going to high school with dentures and not being able to eat properly? You can’t get implants until you’re 18. And they certainly can’t afford implants in Jagna and they can’t afford dentures.
Why don’t we see the same problems in the U.S.? Or do we?
Unfortunately, we do see the same problems in the U.S., specifically in lower income areas or where there is no water fluoridation. Tooth decay is completely preventable, but many people still don’t receive sufficient oral health and nutrition education or access to care.
What is another major similarity between the oral health issues that they’re facing in Bohol and those that we face in the U.S.?
Americans and Filipinos also share a profound love of sugar. We add sweeteners to everything — even naturally sweet things like fruit juice. Sugar is everywhere in Bohol. There seem to be snack stands outside every school, and these stands seem to only hawk processed, sugary foods. Delicious tropical fruits hang from all the trees, but many families feel like they have to sell this bounty to earn income rather than enjoy it themselves.
How does sugar affect kids’ health in Bohol?
Rampant tooth decay afflicts all of the children there.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to dental care in the Philippines?
Not only do most people lack proper nutrition and prevention education, but they cannot afford nutritious foods and oral care products. They also cannot afford to go to the dentist. Most dentists are several hours away by public transportation, and the transportation fare alone can be cost prohibitive.
What is your favorite part of the work you do on your volunteer trips?
In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of my patients are Filipino immigrants. So many of them lack their six-year molars (permanent first molars), and we have to find creative ways to restore their bite.
Whenever I ask them why their molars are missing, they explain that all they could do back home was pull the teeth out. In Jagna, I love getting to save and restore these six-year molars before it’s too late.
What’s your next goal for Jagna?
I’m now a board member of Philos Health, and I have some projects I’m working on in Jagna.I’m hoping to make a small school there tooth-decay free by next year. I’d like to go back next February to see it through, and then return every one to two years moving forward.
Our definition of “tooth-decay free” will evolve and improve over time. Right now, I don’t want any of them to have active cavities going into high school. So that means fillings and extractions if necessary. If we continue the dental care at the school, eventually, we’ll have a group of kids who will graduate with all their teeth.
How can the Cocofloss community help out?
You can donate to Philos Health. For just a little more than the cost of a venti mocha at Starbucks, you can feed a child in the Philippines 150 nutritious meals. Health care professionals can donate their time and expertise on one of Philos Health’s medical missions.