Greg Williams and his team members provide care in remote areas of Ecuador
King City dentist Greg Williams experienced a very different commute in April when his non-profit organization, Wide Open Humanitarian, went on a dental mission to Ecuador, where the group was transported on long boats on the Misa River to reach remote villages.
Ecuador is a democratic republic in northwestern South America that includes the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean to the west, and it is bordered by Peru on the east and south, and Colombia on the north. The vast majority of the population of approximately 15 million speaks Spanish.
The dental team, which was composed of 30 people, flew into the capitol of Quito and then traveled to a river port city called Misachualli, from where they branched out "to areas less likely to have dentists," Williams said of the prearranged sites chosen by his local contacts.
"For two days we worked up river in a village called Anaconda that was a 45-minute boat ride away, and then we drove to a different port, Punibocana, and took boats to an island and hiked for a quarter mile to a village called Kanambu to set up," Williams added.
"We tried to coordinate the trip to take advantage of good weather, but there had been heavy rains previously, and the river was swollen. We used long boats, and a lot of people would have paddled to the island, but the water was too high, although it went down several feet while we were there."
Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain and receding river, the banks where they had to land were "steep, slippery and a muddy mess," Williams said.
But while team members worked steadily on patients, they treated fewer than on previous trips to other parts of the world - maybe 1,000 people total, according to Williams, who added that the government tries to take care of its indigenous people, which it is able to do because the oil companies working in Ecuador contribute money for medical care.
"The natives are not trusting of white men, and Ecuador is still home to some savage tribes," Williams said. "Because there is so much anti-white sentiment, we didn't use too much anesthesia because the natives were suspicious of being knocked out.
"They would say the medicine man doesn't trust dentists, or they would wait to get a report from the first patients to learn how they were treated, and we would see people lurking about and watching us. We always had a lull in the midday while waiting for the first patients to give their reports, and then there would be big rush in the afternoon. Other places we've been, there was no distrust, and we were welcome."
Williams' team paired up with Charity Anywhere that uses dentists in Ecuador to coordinate dental services to keep track of the areas that have been served and those that have needs.
"Of all the places we've been, the people had better teeth," Williams said. "There is a system in place, and it's working. There is no system in place in other countries we've been in.
"We worked with three or four Ecuador dentists who helped us bridge the communication gap. We have different philosophies in treatment, but in general people were appreciative. And there are a lot more politics in Ecuador than in other places we've been. But at the end of the day, we bridged a gap, and we helped people."
At one point, for the first time in all the trips Williams has taken, the team split into two, with the other one led by Dr. Scott Dyer of Tualatin, to serve two different areas. The total team consisted of eight dentists, five dental students, one physician, three dental hygienists, six dental assistants, two support personnel and five teenagers.
Team members also had a little time to visit scenic spots in the areas where they were working, including a river trip in Zodiacs to see lots of waterfalls and a hike along an underground river through a cave system.
"The nice thing about Misachualli is that it is not a tourist town," Williams said. "We try to go to places where there is not that much activity."
The trip, including travel time, ran from April 4 to 15, and the team worked a total of five days, from Sunday through Thursday, "and then we flew to the island of Baltra in the Galapagos and then on to Santa Cruz Island for some R & R," Williams said. "We arrived on Friday morning and left Monday. We tried to coordinate tours ahead of time and took a land tour and saw giant land tortoises. On Saturday, we took a boat ride to an island for some snorkeling, and we saw a lot of flora and fauna, and on Sunday, everyone did their own thing."
As for the next trip, Williams is thinking of Nicaragua or Honduras, "but Nicaragua is at the top of our list," he said. "There is so much need there. I'm glad we went to Ecuador, but there is a system in place there, although it doesn't take care of all the need. We were a support group for their plan. Our goal is to set up systems in other countries.
"We met some of the nicest people and saw a lot more kids than we have seen before. The real problem in Ecuador and other countries is the lack of safe drinking water. Ecuador tries to provide potable water in all its villages, but water costs about the same as pop, so people choose pop over water."
Overall, "it was a great trip," Williams said. "I loved it, and we felt safe."