A Bayside dentist recently returned from a trip to Central America. But he wasn’t on vacation, he was on a mission to provide needed medical and dental services to the impoverished.
Dr. Nicholas Rallis of The Center for Smiles took time off to spend nine days in Guatemala, a developing country where poverty is widespread and deeply entrenched, training local doctors and treating patients.
“These people can use all the help they can get,” Rallis said. “[They] are very poor and the living conditions are primitive.”
He was a part of a team that arrived in Guatemala on Aug. 30. Equipped with dental tools, Rallis spent the first two days of his mission assisting in cleft lip and palate surgeries at a hospital near Guatemala City. He spent the next seven days setting up mobile dental clinics in remote villages before returning to Queens on Sept. 9.
He set up clinics in churches and community centers, most of which had no glass in the windows and had holes in the roofs. The dismal environment was amplified by the rainy weather, which made it very difficult for Rallis to stay warm and dry.
“Guatemala had their rainy season, [I was] advised not to drink the water or anything that washes with water such as fruits, salads and vegetables,” he said.
Rallis said he often saw children walking around barefoot, and those who had shoes wore open-toe sandals that were too small for them. Many of the remote villages he visited in Guatemala had no running water.
The conditions were difficult. During his stay, Rallis said he experienced a volcano eruption and a high-impact earthquake.
“We came out of the clinic and thought it was snowing,” Rallis said of the volcano eruption. “That’s how much ash there was.”
He witnessed a level of poor health in the villages that he’s never seen before in his 25 years as a dentist.
He recalled a 20-year-old patient who was already missing eight teeth. Her teeth were severely infected with abscesses and he had to extract 13 of them.
“She hardly spoke, but you could see the pain in her eyes,” he said. “She was 20 years old and had no teeth.”
Although the patients he helped showed little to no emotion, they were very appreciative, Rallis said.
“Oral health isn’t a priority,” he said. “It’s difficult when you don’t have running water.”
A reason the villagers suffer from poor dental hygiene is because their water does not contain fluoride, a chemical that promotes healthy teeth, and they aren’t “dentally educated,” according to Rallis.
The trip was organized by the Free To Smile Foundation, whose mission is to share resources and abilities with the impoverished and train local doctors.
“Time is a precious thing to have,” he said. “When somebody can donate time to help other people, that’s the most noble thing.”
Rallis, who is also a clinical instructor at NYU College of Dentistry, lives in Manhasset, LI with his wife of 25 years and their three children.