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Sultan Dental Officer battles the heat on Colombian Expedition

18 April 2016
A dental Officer from HMS Sultan braved the elements recently as she was selected to join the Scientific Exploration Society (SES) on an expedition to meet remote tribes in Colombia.

Surgeon Lieutenant (Dental) Jenny Clow is a Dental Officer currently based at the Engineering training establishment, HMS Sultan.

Jenny volunteered and was selected for the expedition to Northern Colombia, as part of a multidisciplinary team, led by Colonel (Retd) John Blashford-Snell, providing medical, dental and engineering assistance to the remote Wiwa tribe.

The Wiwa are the indigenous people that inhabit the Serra Nevada region of Northern Colombia. 

Half the clinics were outside, with livestock wondering around

Surgeon Lieutenant (Dental) Jenny Clow

The Wiwa typically keep themselves isolated from the modern world. However, after a small recce in 2014, the Wiwa leaders were keen to receive medical and engineering assistance from SES.

Surg Lt Clow and another UK based dentist were recruited to provide dental treatment for these isolated communities.

They joined forces with a local Colombia dental team; running clinics in 6 different settlements over 2 weeks.

Although some of the Wiwa had regular access to dental care, there were many families who did not own toothbrushes or understand why their children had painful teeth.

The bulk of the treatments provided were fillings and extractions.

The team were also able to provide some much needed prevention with toothpaste, toothbrushes and a preventative programme discussed with the local dentist and Health Authority.

The success of the expedition relied heavily on the team’s ability to adapt to the local culture.

The Mamos (Wiwa spiritual leaders) required a ceremony to be completed before any medical or engineering work began.

These consisted of holding, or rolling cotton for up to an hour. This ensured all their thoughts were available for the spiritual leaders, who traditionally chew coco leaves for much of the day.

Subsequently there was often a large crowd of patients waiting at the start of any new clinic.

Sure to be a novel experience for anyone, Jenny battled with the elements throughout.

She said: “At one point in the trip, we had to trek to an isolated settlement, Limoncito, which can only be reached by foot or mule.

“Due to “Colombian timings” and mule delays we set off at a rather warm 0830 rather than 0530.

“Still walking through midday, with a temperature of 38 degrees I was glad the mules were carrying the dental kit, knowing I had a dental clinic to set up as soon as we arrived.

"Half the clinics were outside, with livestock wondering around and the need to pause whatever dental treatment I was doing from time to time, to flick away an ant or spider crawling into my patient’s mouth or up my arm. 

“I have had the opportunity to provide dental care in some amazing locations, for welcoming people and it’s been a real eye opener working with a local dentist who has to make do with some very basic equipment. “

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