In Her Father’s Footsteps: Volunteering in Belize

Jeannie Petty with kids
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any parents in this country have to coax, prod and plead with their children to brush their teeth. However, this was not the reaction seen last spring by Jeannie Petty (DH '06), who experienced firsthand the difference that owning and using a toothbrush can make. She gave toothbrushes to more than 500 grateful Mayan children and demonstrated the correct way to brush to the large crowd of eager learners.

Jeannie Petty with her father as a child From right: Jeannie Petty (the tooth fairy) and her dad, Dr. John Petty, pose for a Dental Health Month photo in 1988.

Fulfilling a dream she'd had since she was 8 years old, the UTHSC College of Allied Health Sciences dental hygiene graduate spent a week in Belize on a medical/dental mission serving the Mayan population. As a child, Petty remembered watching her dad, a dentist, fly to Belize on the annual mission trips. "I always wanted him to take me with him. I loved listening to all of his stories about the children and the people when he came back. He told me that when I got older I would be a great helper. Of course that just solidified the fact that I was going to go with him."

"I wasn't sure that I was up for it"

A country the size of Massachusetts, Belize borders the Caribbean Sea in Central America, between Guatemala and Mexico. When Petty and her dad flew into Belize City from Nashville, the weather changed from chilly to the typically humid and hot tropics. From Belize City, the group took an eight-passenger plane to inner Belize.

"Most of the coastline is touristy, but the jungle area is still very primitive," she said. From Belize, the group rode an old school bus into San Antonio where walking is the main mode of transportation.

"I kept hearing that we would be staying in a hotel," remembered Petty, who was initially surprised by her living conditions. "As I looked around my living quarters, I wasn't sure that I was up for it, but the funny thing is by the next afternoon, I felt like I was staying at the Ritz! I may have had to shower outside with about as much water as a water fountain can give off, but I wasn't sleeping on a mud floor with a straw roof over head and chickens coming in and out of my room."

Clinic in Belize: "Quite a social event"

Jeannie and her dad with other volunteers. From right: Jeannie Petty and her dad, Dr. John Petty, pose with the dental volunteers on opening day at the clinic in Belize.

When the Mayfair Church of Christ mission team comes annually to Belize, school is dismissed for a week, and the classrooms are transformed into a temporary dental clinic. Most of the population spoke Mopan Mayan, a language similar to Spanish. Said Petty, "The school-age children knew English, whereas most of the adults knew little or none at all." The language barrier had Petty's team discussing the needs and problems of the adults with their children.

The clinic opened at 8 a.m., and would finish around 5 or 6 p.m. every evening. "I usually woke up to the sound of roosters and old trucks driving into the village to drop off people, about 4:30 or 5 a.m.," said Petty. "It was quite a social event. They would bring their lunches and pretty much stay the whole day out in the blistering heat. A family set up a little concession stand from the back of their truck right next to the registration area. Mothers kept their babies wrapped in lots of blankets, and they would carry them like a little papoose."

Shucking Teeth

Petty observed that although the Mayans' interest in dental care has increased over the years, less than half request dental services. "After having this clinic for more than 20 years, the needs of the people have changed. In our clinic we had three folding chairs set up for extractions, two homemade dental chairs set up for operative and two chairs dedicated to cleanings. The hygiene chairs were always full. The people now want to come to the clinic for a cleaning even if they aren't having any symptoms.

Hands on experience with Dr. Jeff Frizzell From left: Jeannie Petty gets hands-on experience from Dr. Jeff Frizzell, a dentist from Memphis.

When my dad first started going, the dental clinic was outside with a tarp put up to block some of the rays. They mainly just shucked [pulled] teeth all week. There was so much to do that hygiene cleanings were not even an option. Now patients are interested in saving their teeth, if possible, and they have the equipment to accommodate amalgam fillings. We even did a few root canals."

People who stood outside waiting to be seen would have their children with them. If a woman was nursing her baby and her name was called, Petty said she would continue to nurse through the entire session. "It was kind of shocking at first, but I didn't think anything of a baby being nursed while a mother was having a tooth pulled in a folding chair. We mainly saw adults inside the dental clinic because toothaches were a high priority for the parents, if their children weren't hurting then they didn't get them a paper to get their teeth cleaned. I realized what was happening by the second day because I would see all these small children running around but they would never be in our clinic."

Tooth Brushing Lessons

Petty began to draw a crowd when she stood outside the clinic door and offered to teach the children in the crowd to brush their teeth.

"On my breaks I would stand outside and talk to the children while trying to catch a little of the breeze. I knew we had plenty of supplies, but there were too many children for individual cleanings," said Petty. She wasn't sure if her idea of a mass tooth brushing lesson would go over, but she decided to give it a try.

Lined up for flouride varnish. Jeannie said, "Even the boys too cool for school lined up for the single-dose flouride varnish."

Lining them in a row, she passed out toothbrushes and then put toothpaste on each brush, asking for a volunteer to demonstrate the technique. "I had them all brush for two minutes, and I would go down the row and help each one. I then handed them each a paper cup with water to rinse and spit. After the tooth brushing lesson I would paint all their teeth with single-dose cavity varnish. By the time I was done with one session I had another crowd waiting. I made a lot of buddies that week," said Petty. Remembering the children were very interested and curious, she said, "They were all very polite and would wait outside the open doors of our clinic till I would come out and talk to them. By about the second day I started hearing my name called out as I walked from the hotel to the clinic. Little voices rang through the doors of dirt-floor thatched huts. Everywhere I walked in the village, I was always surprised that the children knew my name. They would come and ask if they could have a toothbrush. I would tell them to come to the dental clinic, and I would give them lessons first."

"I would go back in a heartbeat"

At the end of the week, Petty couldn't remember what air conditioning felt like, but it didn't seem that important anymore. "My perspective changed so much from my first impression of the dirty, hot and damp hotel. It was hot and muggy awake or asleep, but I would go back in a heartbeat," she said. Throughout the week the group would take an empty toothbrush or supply box to the trash pile. The boxes would be confiscated before they ended up in the trash by a child asking if they could take it home. "You would have thought I had given them an ice cream cone the way their faces lit up," said Petty, who gave away many boxes that week.

Petty lined up with children.

Back Home in Tennessee

These days, Petty, a dental hygienist in Brentwood, Tenn., enjoys living close to her family in Tullahoma. "I'm close enough that I can work for my dad whenever they can't find a substitute," she said. "I work three days a week for a general dentist and one day a week for a prosthodontist," she added. Involved with the local church, Petty helps with the inner city program that meets every Monday night. She also enjoys the outdoors, saying, "I love hiking and backpacking. My dad and I have hiked the Grand Canyon and in Zion National Park. I've run several half marathons, and my mom and sister and I are planning to walk the music city half-marathon in April."

Her mission adventure in Belize has been a welcome addition to Petty's list of volunteer efforts. "These experiences helped me to see the opportunities that could arise just because of my profession. I knew it was going to open doors for me to help educate and care for those who are often overlooked," she observed.

Local girls after receiving a new toothbrush. Local girls smile as they each receive a new toothbrush and a "Star Wars" watch.

The College of Allied Health Sciences' dental hygiene program prepared Petty on many levels for her journey this summer. "While I was at UTHSC I got a lot out of the different rotation sites. I loved going into the schools and cleaning students' teeth. Also working at the Church Health Center in Memphis and with Smiles and Blessings in Jackson, Tenn., she spent several Saturdays cleaning teeth for underrepresented boys. In addition, Petty volunteered at S.A.Y Yes in West Memphis: "I came home every week overwhelmed with how some kids here in America are living on survival mode and don't get the attention and care that they need and deserve. Many of the children I worked with in Belize were not all that different from some of the kids here in the states. I realize now that anywhere I go there will always be people who are in need."