Procerfina Kebabian, a retired dentist from Massachusetts, decided to spend her winter differently this year and embarked upon a volunteer journey to Tanzania for three weeks. Originally from the Philippines, Procerfina (Procy) retired from dentistry practice 30 years ago. Procy says she felt honored by the request to teach oral health care in Tanzania and assist in the health clinic. Here, Procy describes her volunteer experience in Ipalamwa.
By Procerfina Kebabian, Tanzania volunteer
I decided to spend this winter season differently from past years. Since my husband passed away, I have either spent the winter with family in Boston or Florida. I was inspired by the blogs discussing volunteer opportunities and I knew I could do the jobs that were listed and was sure to learn from the experience.
Applying was a straight-forward process; I checked off my interest in arts and crafts, gardening, painting, and some teaching. I downplayed my dental profession having retired from dentistry some 30 years ago and worked in research up until my full retirement. Two weeks before my scheduled departure, I received an email from Dorota Wierzbicka, Director of International Operations, asking if I would be willing to conduct Oral Health Care Workshops for the Reaching Child Potential (RCP) program mothers and spend mornings helping in the clinic during my service program. I was surprised at the request, and told her that I was honored to do it, mentioning that I had not seen any patients outside of my family since I retired.
Admittedly, my anxiety began when I realized I did not have much time prior to departure to get abreast with the current research and methods in oral care. I carried this anxiety until the day I arrived at the doors of Ipalamwa General Clinic. When we arrived it was raining, cool, and quiet. The sunset was beautiful; I thought it to be an auspicious sign of the days to come as a volunteer.
At the first meeting, I met Team 29, a group of young, friendly, happy adults eager to help in whatever capacity needed for the community. Our Team Leader, Winnie Mshindo, gave us our assignments. For me, in addition to the workshop, I was to spend the week with Dr. Silas in the medical clinic. After a brief introduction with Anna, the friendly clinic manager, the first patient of the day was shown in. That first day, it was a very busy Monday morning. Dr. Silas was calm and analytical, a very competent physician who had great rapport and energy attending to all his patients. He translated the patient medical histories for me prior to sending them for laboratory test.
One morning he turned to me and said “this patient is for you to evaluate.” Having been retired from dentistry for so long, I was excited to see a patient. With the help of a translator, I was able to get the history, diagnose the condition, and request that Dr. Silas write the prescription. This was followed by another dental patient and I repeated the process. I was very grateful to Dr. Silas for the referral, an unexpected moment I will carry in my heart till the end of time. As I went out the door for lunch, I felt six feet tall and my heart was just over flowing with pride and joy. My father would be very proud of me. A third dental patient came at the end of the week. In the absence of a translator, Dr. Silas and I worked together on the care and treatment of the patient.
“I was very grateful to Dr. Silas for the referral, an unexpected moment I will carry in my heart till the end of time. As I went out the door for lunch, I felt six feet tall and my heart was just over flowing with pride and joy. My father would be very proud of me.”– Procerfina Kebabian
The following week I spent the morning with Dr. Benjamin, a kind, considerate, and caring doctor. When he saw patients, he translated the patient case history and showed me the test he requested to confirm his diagnosis. When I was transferred to the laboratory the following day, Dr. Benjamin came and told me he “had a consult for me”. As I don’t speak Swahili, Dr. Benjamin helped me process the patient. Again the moment happened so fast, I felt honored to be recognized post retirement and very thankful for the trust accorded to me. Both Dr. Silas and Dr. Benjamin, two brilliant doctors, restored my confidence and I only wish I could have done more for the patients to completely relieve them of their discomfort.
In the afternoons, I presented Oral Health Care workshops to RCP mothers. The number of people that attended varied from day to day. The first day sixteen people (eight mothers each with a baby) attended the workshop. The numbers fluctuated, increasing to fifteen mothers each with a child attending the workshop over the three-week period. I was very nervous at the beginning, not having done any public speaking in retirement. However, like riding a bicycle, I got back on and enjoyed speaking to the attendees about oral health care and the importance of the early introduction of oral hygiene for children. I kept in mind presentation suggestions from both Dr. Silas and Joe, a co-volunteer, applying and refining their recommendations as I went through the presentations.
“Again the moment happened so fast, I felt honored to be recognized post retirement and very thankful for the trust accorded to me. Both Dr. Silas and Dr. Benjamin, two brilliant doctors, restored my confidence and I only wish I could have done more for the patients to completely relieve them of their discomfort.”– Procerfina Kebabian
The mothers who attended the workshop were all polite and very attentive. I was impressed by their observance of good hand hygiene before having their snack. I felt good when through the interpreter, attendees asked questions either pertaining to the workshop or oral-related problems others had experienced which they wanted to clarify. I felt my presentation was well received when Rebecca, another volunteer from my team, mentioned to me that during one of her home visits one mother mentioned that she had attended my workshop. This mother mentioned that she liked the workshop because she learned something while attending. I also heard from Dana, a co-volunteer, that community members had told them that the workshop was good. From Theo, the translator, I was told the mothers liked the workshop because in addition to learning much, they saw the actual tooth brushing technique. (I brought a large mouth and toothbrush as a visual aid for the workshop). The positive feedback was a wonderful thing and it made my day.
“I was impressed by their observance of good hand hygiene before having their snack. I felt good when through the interpreter, attendees asked questions either pertaining to the workshop or oral-related problems others had experienced which they wanted to clarify.”– Procerfina Kebabian
On the days I did not conduct workshops I went to home visits with Megan, another co-volunteer, and Theo, a caregiver. At these home visits, it was interesting for me as a volunteer to meet people in the communities whom we were there to serve. At one home visit I saw a Global Volunteer-designed hand washing station assembled in the home of the family we visited. The families were happy to talk to us and it was a privilege to meet and listen with them. One family expressed their hope that I was to be the new visiting dentist at the center. Another mother who attended the oral care workshop hoped the center would have a dentist join its staff.
During my time in the clinic I had the opportunity to work with different Global Volunteers staff: I spent some time with the midwife, Mr. Zahoro. He was very thorough, kind, and caring, and tender with the children he saw. He was highly knowledgeable of his profession. I saw him give immunizations to children and observed him treat a lot of interesting cases. Mr. Zahoro was indefatigable, and thoroughly explained the patient history and conditions to me. I felt I learned a lot from him.
In the laboratory, analyses for the presences of a disease were all in the hands of Mr. Brown, a very capable and fast worker. He is a careful technician who delivered the results expeditiously to help the doctors in their diagnoses. He knew the underlying principles of the different tests conducted and explained them to me fully.
I also spent a day with the pharmacist, Mr. Selemani. He showed me around the pharmacy. He also gave immunizations to children. With the help of co-volunteers Katie and Morgan, I saw how the pharmacists wrote the instructions for the patients. He also showed me how to give immunizations to children.
In addition to time in the clinic and home visits, the summary of my experience would be incomplete without discussing our fearless Team Leader, Winnie, who kept us on time and on top of our work. I looked forward to Sundays when we all went to church. The children in the congregation sang beautifully and Winnie’s voice would soar nicely in accompaniment. Also, Winnie would lend us her missal book for perusal to better understand the homily that was delivered in Swahili.
It would be selfish of me not to also mention the wonderful caregivers and translators: Regina, Sifuni, and Theo. They did a very good job of relaying my message to the workshop attendees. All of them were patient teachers who pointed out the important aspects of the workshop and encouraged the mothers to ask questions. I enjoyed working with all of them and without them, important details crucial to the workshop would have been missed.
In addition I am grateful for the Global Volunteers community – to Director Dorota who appointed the translators to help me. I am also very thankful to Marcia and Bluma, co-volunteers who helped me distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste to the mothers, and helped calm down the babies in attendance during my oral care workshops. When I told the attendees that that afternoon’s presentation was my last day, I could barely say my prepared parting words to them in Swahili. I was so choked with emotion to leave this wonderful life-changing experience.
With Team 29, I experienced many happy moments such as:
- Mama Toni (Global Volunteers’ excellent chef) demonstrating local dances,
- Winnie’s rendition of Amazing Grace and a special duet with Anna singing Tanzania’s national anthem,
- Joe’s (co-volunteer) and Rebecca’s birthday celebrations,
- Marcia’s (co-volunteer) farewell party,
- Group dancing with the women of the community along with the volunteers and staff,
- Watching the children of the community play soccer,
- Evenings of Yahtzee, Bingo, and Jenga with fellow volunteers.
In addition, the weekend trip on safari (my first ever time on safari) was memorable. Our accommodations were terrific, the food was good, and seeing the different animals was amazing. I am particularly grateful to my co-volunteer Trevor who helped me overcome difficult paths on the trip.
Overall, I am so glad that I volunteered with Global Volunteers. It was a worthwhile endeavor that gave me a sense of purpose to use my professional skills again in a productive way. I met new friends, found a new community, and I hope to be able to join Global Volunteers again in the future.
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