By djpotts - April 19, 2018

Two Loma Linda University dentists teamed up for the sixth year in a row to bring healthy smiles to the underserved children and families of Trona, California.​

Gary Kerstetter, DDS’82, who serves as the director of service learning in the office of admissions and student affairs, and Wesley Okumura, DDS’94, assistant professor in pediatric dentistry at the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, led a group of dental students on a four-day, two-country mission service trip, earlier this year.

This year’s trip was different than those past — volunteers completed two mission trips back to back. Immediately following their work in Trona, the dental team drove down to the Loma Linda University campus to join up with the Students for International Mission Service (SIMS)on a dental mission trip to an orphanage in Uruapan, Baja California, Mexico.

“What once began as a responsibility, mission service has now become my passion,” said Okumura, who has worked at the School of Dentistry for over 17 years. Each year he looks forward to helping those children who are most in need. “It is fulfilling and rewarding in ways that go beyond teaching,” Okumura said.

The duo began their journey by driving the School of Dentistry’s 37-foot mobile clinic R.V. — which houses two fully-equipped operatories, sterilizer and x-ray machine — 140 miles up the Interstate 15 to Trona Elementary School.

Trona, a small mining town southwest of Death Valley, is known for its isolation. There are no dentists there. Kerstetter said that except for the children they treated on previous trips, a lot of the kids at the elementary school had never been to a dentist.

The volunteer dentists treated 60 patients and then headed south. After a quick stop at Loma Linda University, to drop off and pick up new students, the dental team drove down to Mexico with the SIMS group composed of dental hygiene, nursing and audiology students.

For over 20 years SIMS has coordinated dental and medical mission trips to the Mount of Olives Children’s Village, an orphanage operated by Missions Network International.

According to Okumura, the need in that area of Mexico was great. “One of our patients at age 67 had never been to a dentist,” he said.

Ed Drachenberg, director, students for international mission service, said the trip went smoothly overall, although there was a minor hiccup. An amalgam agitator — used to mix a dental compound that provides hard and durable fillings — was accidentally left on campus.

The dental volunteers were stumped until they put their heads together and quickly came up with a creative solution for a make-shift agitator. They borrowed a reciprocating saw from the orphanage’s maintenance department and attached a pvc pipe to form “cup” around the blade.

“That MacGyvered contraption actually worked!” Co-trip leader Drachenberg exclaimed, giving credit to the inventive School of Dentistry faculty.

Over the next two days children and staff received dental care including sealants, fillings and extractions. Dental cleanings were performed by dental hygiene students led by Shirley Lee, MS, RDH’82, associate professor, department of dental hygiene.

“Remembering those little one’s smiling faces and how respectful and appreciative they were, brings tears to my eyes,” says Kerstetter.

Both Okumura and Kerstetter will continue to serve the community of Trona and plan to participate in future SIMS trips. In addition to the upcoming School of Dentistry trips to Angola, Ghana, Nicaragua and Ukraine this summer, Kerstetter will lead a student dental team on a SIMS trip to Angola.

“These dedicated faculty members exemplify our commitment to service as an institution,” says Drachenberg. “They are making a difference in not only patient’s lives — but student’s lives — by igniting their passion for mission service locally and abroad.”