Dentistry '21

Matthew Nelson

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GRIP: Intern in The Gambia

Program Abroad:

  • Global Research & Internship Program (GRIP): Power Up Gambia Intern in Bwiam, The Gambia

Ask me about...

  • Being more acutely aware of their privilege around the world as Americans, and especially in developing contexts. As such, the onus is on us to minimize symbolic disparities and not exploit these situations.

  • Seeking ways that mutually benefit and generate collaborations in which all parties involved are legitimate and equal contributors. Being a foreigner with status is unavoidable, but there is a place and time where that may be appropriately used. Because my colleague and I were aware of our elevated status, we made conscious efforts in our interactions to mitigate these differential constructs. Perhaps, this is why numerous students would often comment that we were so approachable in comparison to other foreign students.

My Experience Abroad:

The Gambia really challenged me to reconceptualize the practice of dentistry in multiple ways. First of all, in the US, we have ethical parameters by which we operate; however, in developing contexts, in order to ensure health care equity, alternative measures are pursued to meet the needs of the people. Here, intermediate - or midlevel - providers like nurses, for instance, may be trained to perform extractions, which is extremely uncommon in the US system - although dental therapists are gaining traction in underserved regions. Hence, it was necessary to keep an open-mind to interprofessional dynamics we weren’t yet accustomed to back home. At this stage, we are now in the process of partnering with the University of The Gambia to create an internship that fosters bilateral mentoring and clinically-related exchange. While we can't say to what extent we can embrace a modified curative model, we do know that it must be contextualized to The Gambia. That said, we're looking into how mid-level providers can be integrated into a model of dental care that benefits not just urban dwellers but those in rural areas as well.

Other Highlights:

  • Meeting and working with stakeholders: Foreign dentists from all over the world (Cuba, Nigeria, The Gambia, Sweden, The Netherlands, the UK, Mali, etc.), technicians from Syria and Cuba, the Provost and medical students from the University of The Gambia, etc. 

  • School visits: Our first visit was at primary school with Westland4Gambia in a mobile van, and our second one was at a high school in the local community where we were stationed. For the high school students, we actually performed skits of oral health situations and elicited responses based on embedded problems.

  • Guesting on national radio and TV shows: This gave us a chance to broadcast our message to a greater audience. We came with no experience, but thankfully our nerves didn't get the best of us!

  • Recording a song on oral health: We have big plans for this song on how to brush your teeth. We made it about 2:45min long, and it's very catchy. The intent is to teach the song (and as yet to be choreographed dance) to children during school visits, and since the song is a little over 2min, our hope is that the song, once committed to memory, can serve as a rough timer for how long you should brush your teeth. 

  • Making new lifelong friends: This was the hardest part about leaving The Gambia. Everyone was so genuine, sincere, and kind - just absolutely hospitable and welcoming. And, many of my Gambian acquaintances quickly became close friends over the course of our 2-month post. I miss them already.

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