The girl, no more than five years old, was placed in the dentist’s chair, screaming. The dentist in charge told Alice Powell to hold the girl’s head – now! – so she could deliver a needle of antibiotics.
Whatever the 28-year-old Saanich woman expected for her first day of work in West Africa, it wasn’t holding down terrified children. It contradicted everything she’d leaned at Camosun College to be a dental assistant, but in this case, it helped save the young girl’s life.
“Normally, you try to make dentistry a nice experience and you try not to traumatize people,” Powell said.
“The dentist said ‘think of it this way: This child may never have access to dentistry again, and she’s got a bad tooth infection. If we don’t treat it and the tooth rots, the infection could get to a point where it’s life threatening.’”
It was an intense introduction to Mercy Ships, but one she appreciated. Powell spent seven months last year working in Guinea for the Christian charity organization that uses the hospital ship Africa Mercy as a platform for delivering free medical care. This week, she’s returning to the ship – after a five-week detour in Texas for training – for a two-year tour, starting in the Republic of Congo.
“The practice I work at (in Sidney) is really good and I enjoy it, but I’m excited to go back to the boat,” she said. “It’s a different focus than working a regular day job. We’re all there working for humanity, to serve others.”
People volunteering their skills for Mercy Ships have to pay for room and board on the ship, flights and spending money. Powell estimates she needs $21,000 for the two years.
Powell entered the dental program with the idea that it could lead to volunteering overseas.
“The idea percolated for a long time. I always thought I’d like to help people and not necessarily live a comfortable North American life,” she said.
Africa Mercy, slightly smaller than a Coastal class B.C. Ferry, has five surgical operating theatres and a full laboratory, but the dental practice was run out of a compound in the city of Conkary.
Hundreds of people lined up twice per week for dental care, and the service worked on a triage system – children and those with life-threatening infections went first, followed by those with physical disabilities.
“We tend not to see this here, but some molar infections can cause swelling and can block the airway. We did have a couple people in a critical stage … and we had to get them to go to the hospital. It was life and death.”
Last June she returned to her parent’s house in Saanich, but with the idea of returning to the Africa Mercy as soon as possible.
“I said ‘Welcome back!’ She said, ‘Not for long,’” said her mom, Penny Powell. “She just loved it. She felt like she was doing something to help people. She was determined to go back.
“I thought it would be dangerous. But her dad and I are really proud she’s doing this. She is a very compassionate person and it takes a certain amount of strength.”
Powell described life onboard the Africa Mercy as “cushy.” “You go from the outside where it is hot, sweaty, humid and loud to inside the ship, where it’s like a little American bubble.”
For more on Mercy Ships, see mercyships.ca.