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Island smiles sparkle for Dade City dentist

Published Oct. 2, 2005

The children's smiles tell the story.

Dr. David Friedman and his wife, Barbara, just returned from the island of St. Lucia, where the Dade City dentist spent four days performing dental procedures on 220 children and adults.

The work was voluntary and the pay was more than enough _ grins often accompanied by a mango.

It was their third trip to St. Lucia, an eastern Caribbean island one-fifth the size of Rhode Island. They stayed in the town of Vieux Fort _ not the touristy end of the island _ and traveled each day to neighboring villages to perform dental work. Poor roads and minimal transportation make it hard for residents in outlying areas to make it to town. Generally his patients spoke patois _ a mixture of French and English _ which he describes as similar to a French Creole language.

Their host on the island was missionary Lee Miller and his wife, Deb, who have been on the island about 10 years, sent there through the Southern Baptist Convention. Miller monitors the needs of the community and makes a list of requests, then professionals like Friedman sign up to fill the slots. The professionals volunteer their time, buy their own plane tickets and arrange for housing and food.

Barbara Friedman said the volunteers are not always dentists or doctors. There also are construction workers, seamstresses, craftspeople and people doing all kinds of things. She also said that staying with the Millers was great, even though their hosts would occasionally grab a net to snatch a bat that had made its way inside.

The Dade City Rotary Club also had a hand in the dental work. The local club paid for most of the dental supplies used on the trip. Friedman, who is also a Rotarian, says the supplies cost about $900 this trip.

Friedman traveled with cotton gauze, surgical forceps, silver filling material, filling equipment, curing lights to harden the white fillings, small equipment to mix and dispense the fillings, and drills and burrs, which most people know as drill bits. The list also included anesthetic and toothbrushes for the patients. The toothbrushes were a big hit.

Unfortunately they couldn't haul everything _ the dental chair for example.

"We used a straight-back chair and pillows. Garbage bags were placed over the pillows for each patient to avoid the pillow becoming contaminated," Friedman said.

Even then, he had it better than dentists in other locations, he said. In some places, instead of having a local medical clinic to work in, dentists work out in the open in primitive settings.

He noted that the majority of the work was extractions of non-restorable teeth and fillings.

"We use the same local anesthetic as at home, xylocaine, but we don't have nitrous oxide available. And we use both topical and injections. This trip 90 percent of the patients were elementary-age children. The children all wear uniforms and the color of their shirt indicates which school they attend," Friedman said.

He reported very few became "management problems." He said the St. Lucians are very appreciative and very clean and neat.

The trip gave him the satisfaction of doing something for other people. But even deeper is the bond that Friedman developed with the missionaries.

"It is wonderful to see how resourceful and how committed the missionaries are and to get a first hand look at the work they are doing around the world. It is one thing to read about it, but to be right there with them, to see the problems they have to overcome . . .. For me it is as much as getting to know them and fellowship with some of the international missionaries as well as doing the humanitarian aid," Friedman said.

Friedman says his host, Miller, did his doctoral dissertation on cults and formerly served as a missionary in Guyana. In St. Lucia, Miller's home serves as a base for the medical volunteers, and the large breezeway under the home is now the site for weekly church services conducted in English and Chinese.

The services accommodate Chinese factory workers who work in St. Lucia and send their wages back home to their families in China.

During their short stay, Barbara Friedman, a pianist and organist at First Baptist Church in Dade City, got the opportunity to play a small keyboard piano for the worship services.

She says she is bowled over by the dedication of the missionaries and says "they don't wear halos over their heads."

She and her husband and Miller would get to the rural clinics at 8 a.m. each day with a line of people already waiting. Often she is drafted to work as a dental assistant to her husband, but with Miller and local clinic staff on hand, she was free to spend time with the children.

"We made up a toothbrush song. I asked them what song they knew so that we could use that tune. They said the Barney song. They sang the lyrics, "brush your teeth, up and down, every day,' to the tune of Barney," Barbara Friedman said.

She also taught them the children's church song Deep and Wide, which was written years ago by her father, Sidney Cox.

Last week, as David Friedman talked about their trip to a group of children at the church, the children were interested in the lifestyle of the St. Lucian children.

"I told them, "when you think things are bad here, it becomes evident we live in the greatest country in the world.' "