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Over one thousand African children receive emergency dental treatment thanks to volunteer nurse Paula (1)

A University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) nurse has helped deliver life-changing treatment to over one thousand African school-children.

Paula Bentley, a dental nurse at County Hospital used her annual leave to travel to Chefchaouen in Morocco’s northern Rif mountain range to provide emergency dental care to primary and secondary school children.

Paula spent ten days in the remote mountain region volunteering with a group from international charity Dentaid, carrying out over one thousand extractions using basic equipment.

She said: “I can’t begin to express how much of an overwhelming and emotional experience it was. A lot of these children had not even heard of a dentist before, let alone been to one. We were mainly doing extractions of decayed teeth.”

“The diet over there is very sweet which leads to the deterioration of people’s teeth. Dental care is practically non-existent in this region of Morocco, you need to be earning a lot of money to access it- you even need to be very wealthy to access the so-called ‘underground’ dentists.”

Paula, who’s worked in County Hospital’s Outpatients Department for two years, is more used to fixing and adjusting braces, biopsies and oral surgery.

Speaking about her role in Morocco, she said: “Working as part of a small team, my role was to triage the children based on what was causing the most pain using the Arabic I’d learnt whilst out there. After their procedure I provided oral health education including how to brush correctly and applied fluoride to the children’s teeth to help preserve them.”

Paula and her fellow volunteers would drive for hours each morning to reach the area’s remote mountain communities.

She said: “It was long days of 7am starts until 8pm at night. I’ll never take the sterilised instruments we have in the NHS for granted again. Here at UHNM we send them off to be cleaned by sterile services and they come back all nicely packaged. There, we were having to make do with cleaning our instruments by ourselves as we went by using two pressure cookers on top of two gas bottles. The noise and the steam and the crying in the clinics was something else.”

“This was the first volunteering trip since Covid and I’m not sure if that factored into the amount of children in pain requiring treatment. There were moments when you feel like having a little cry out of pity for the children, who in some cases had walked for hours to receive care, but you’ve got to get the job done. At the back of my mind I was thinking how brave the children were, who’d never experienced anything like this before.”

The experience has helped changed Paula’s outlook on her role at UHNM and dentistry here in the UK.

She said: “When I say it was life-changing it sounds very cheesy, but I can honestly say it was. It’s made me appreciate what we have here in the UK. Even though people complain about the NHS and especially dentistry, when you go to a country like Morocco, which is quite affluent in certain areas, it’s made me think these children have had to endure years of pain and its very emotional for me.”

Paula is thankful to her UHNM colleagues for allowing her the chance to take part in the volunteering.

She added: “Before I started at UHNM, I worked for the military’s dental services for 18 years and with them I didn’t get the opportunity to do anything like this. I saw this advertised on social media and I asked my manager who was really supportive, so started fundraising for it then off I went!”

“They’ve also asked me to join the October 2024 mission back to Morocco which I’m thrilled about, and am planning to run the Stafford Half Marathon next Spring to raise funds for this.”

“I’d encourage all UHNM colleagues considering going overseas and volunteering in a similar capacity to go for it. I feel such satisfaction knowing that you’ve made a big impact a on the children that you’ve treated.”