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Local dentist makes smiles a reality for Jamaicans
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Turlock dentist John Swearingen smiles alongside a patient who came to him with no teeth but left with a bright smile thanks to his new set of dentures. - photo by Photo contributed by John Swearingen

While going to the dentist is a matter of routine for many Americans, in Jamaica it’s a luxury.

Turlock dentist John Swearingen has been venturing to Jamaica since 2009 through the nonprofit Great Shape, Inc. to treat children and adults in rural communities where dental care is a rarity.

“I had read an article in the American Dental Association journal about volunteer opportunities in Jamaica, so I called them and they had some spaces available,” recalled Swearingen, who had wanted to perform overseas volunteer work for some time.

The dentists stay at a resort and are bused into villages in the mountains where sugar cane is the main industry. The first two years Swearingen mainly performed dental work on children, many of whom had never met a dentist before. The kids are often apprehensive because it is rumored in the community that dentists come to pull out their teeth, but Swearingen said that is only done if it is the best long term solution. The dentists have to be conservative and pragmatic as the odds of the children having follow-up care is very slim.

“Six-year-olds open their mouth and they’ve got like 20 cavities, so you think where do we start here?” said Swearingen.

The dentists focus predominantly on eliminating pain and diseases, performing sealants which fill in the tooth to protect it from bacteria and cavities, and restoring teeth that can be preserved. Making the teeth look good is also important as it instills confidence in the patients.

 “Obviously when you’re eight years old how your teeth look is a big deal,” said Swearingen.

It’s a big deal for adults as well.

 “Smile preservation is an important in Jamaica because when Jamaicans lost their front teeth they can’t get jobs because most of the jobs are in the service industry,” explained Swearingen.

The aesthetic work that the volunteer dentists, hygienists, and assistants perform essentially bestows Jamaicans with what is often the precious opportunity of acquiring a job and a chance to provide for their families.

In 2013, Swearingen worked as a staff dentist at the resort where the dentists stayed and performed dental work on service employees at the hotel.  The following year he returned to Jamaica with the help of the Turlock Sunrise Rotary Club, which he belongs to, as they donated $2,500 for him to purchase dental supplies for his latest project: creating dentures for Jamaicans in just one hour.

A set of dentures typically takes two to three weeks but with Swearingen’s training in Larell Dentures,  a form that utilizes a moldable thermoplastic template which can by shaped quickly to the patient’s mouth, Swearingen has been able to literally change the lives of Jamaicans. Many of the patients came to him with no teeth but left with a wide, bright smile.

“The people are so appreciative and it’s just very rewarding,” said Swearingen.

In Jamaica there is only one dentist for every 100,000 people so the work that Great Shape dentists perform is significant. More consistent care is on the horizon as well as the nonprofit is working with the Jamaican government to educate them on ways to improve basic dental care. The country also had its first class of dentists graduate in 2014.

“That just shows you that the access that we give these people is really valuable and that’s why we have to do what little we can to change their lives,” said Swearingen.