The 8-year-old girl had a decayed front tooth, discolored almost to the gum line. In the African city slum where she lived, such a disfigurement was essentially a curse that would repel marriage suitors and crush her prospects for any kind of hopeful future.
Then the dentists arrived. They treated and restored the tooth. The little girl smiled and the mother wept for joy. Sean Vreeburg ’09 (biological sciences) (MS ’10 health communications) will never forget the moment.
“I haven’t ever seen somebody hysterically cry with joy after dental work like that,” says Vreeburg. “It was very cool.”
It is just one of many profound memories Vreeburg and his classmates from the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC brought home from their weeklong humanitarian dental trip to the densely populated Mathare slums in the Kenyan capital city. The trip, which involved putting 51 dental professionals and support staff on the ground in a mobile clinic for a week of comprehensive dentistry, was planned and managed by the USC Dental Humanitarian Outreach Program, a student club of which Vreeburg is co-president.
With support from Crest, fundraisers and donations from dentists and supporters, the club was able to send enough students and supervising faculty, supplies, medicines and equipment to replicate the same treatment offered at the dental school’s Los Angeles clinics. It took 10 months to organize and is believed to be the largest such dental outreach in Kenyan history.
“It turned out to be the biggest, most work-intensive thing I’ve ever done,” says Vreeburg, who also played four years of basketball during his undergraduate time at Chapman University.
And work it was. Contacts with international Christian ministry groups helped, but the lion’s share of the details, including translators, power sources, temporary dental licenses, security and insurance – even evacuation insurance to provide emergency airlift should Nairobi’s regional violence flare up – fell to Vreeburg and his fellow organizers.
Upon arrival, long days followed as crew members worked to see as many patients as they could before nightfall. None of their patients had ever seen dentists. The team distributed 15,000 toothbrushes and instructed countless children in good brushing and flossing habits. So many people were plagued by such agonizing toothaches that Vreeburg says they stopped the students in the street “asking us to pull them on the spot. That was a lot to handle. You see just so many cases of devastating and rampant caries (cavities).”
Vreeburg says he was inspired to plan the major trip after a brief small-group visit to Cartagena, Colombia, last year. With a larger group and a little more time, he knew that procedures like the restoration of the little girl’s tooth and follow-up care for other complicated treatments could be completed while the doctors were still at hand.
“I just put the pedal to the metal and put my head down and made it work,” he says.
Chapman basketball coach Mike Bokosky says he saw and admired the same kind of leadership skills in Vreeburg as a player.
“He had a great, even keel about him,” says Bokosky. “He wasn’t a very big player. He was maybe 6 feet tall on a good day. But he was one of our best players. His heart was the size of a football and, I think that in itself lends to great leadership. I’m not surprised Sean is doing something in a leadership capacity. I think he’d be successful in anything in life.”
Back home and back to his coursework and clinic routine, Vreeburg reflected on his ability to pull off such a large-scale project. It had its beginnings at Chapman, he says.
“The experiences that I had there really helped me become successful at this level,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience, and I’m a very proud alumnus.”