Dental volunteers for Israel

Aug. 1, 2004
An Arab mother sits quietly with her 7-year-old son beside her. A Jewish man speaks to his daughter in Hebrew, gently reassuring her about the upcoming procedure.

Keith Phillips, DDS

An Arab mother sits quietly with her 7-year-old son beside her. A Jewish man speaks to his daughter in Hebrew, gently reassuring her about the upcoming procedure. A Palestinian family completes health history information at a small table while a 10-year-old Christian girl excitedly announces to the visiting dentist from Denmark that she just lost another baby tooth. Imagine such diverse backgrounds working in harmony anywhere in the world — then place that busy reception room in Jerusalem.

In 1980, Holocaust survivor Trudi Birger decided that the Israelei government's decision to close school-based dental clinics was creating an unacceptable hardship for many of the low-income people of Jerusalem. Mrs. Birger observed that the many Ethiopian and Russian immigrants arriving in Israel, along with the children of those representing many cultural backgrounds within the city of Jerusalem, had little or no access to dental care. The Trudi Birger Clinic, operated by the Dental Volunteers for Israel, DVI, now treats any child between the ages of 5 and 18 at no cost to the patients or their families. With dental volunteers from 13 western countries totaling more than 2,500 individual dental professionals, traveling at their own expense, the clinic has treated over 40,000 patients since 1980. The clinic is unable to provide fixed prosthodontic procedures, but routinely provides operative care, endodontic treatment, and, most important ly to their program, dental hygiene education, spearheaded by Yehudit Yazersky, dental hygienist and mother of four children, who moved from New York to Jerusalem over eight years ago. All children who wish to be treated in the clinic first spend some time with Yehudit undergoing initial cleaning and careful oral hygiene as well as nutritional instruction. A few weeks later, the child returns to the clinic for another check.

Upon returning, each child has a checkup visit with Yehudit. If the child has been maintaining his or her oral hygiene, the next step is to see the dentist for treatment-planning and comprehensive care. Patients and parents know up front that no treatment beyond cleaning will be provided unless meticulous oral hygiene is maintained by the patient.

The clinic operates 45 weeks a year with a four-day work week. It is a modern, five-operatory facility. Volunteer dentists often bring needed supplies with them when they come to work, and Sullivan-Schein Inc. has been a tremendous supporter of the clinic by donating many essential items. Support for this program has come from organizations all over the world.

Dr. Moti Moskovitz, DVI dental director and pediatric dentist, serves as a treatment coordinator for visiting dentists and manages any special needs or behavioral problem patients. Dr. Bruce Sherizen, a Riverview, Mich., dentist who returned from his third trip to the clinic last March, says that it is important for volunteer dentists to understand that "This is not a high-pressure clinic; you do what you are comfortable doing." Dr. Sherizen quickly adds that the clinic staff is careful to meet volunteers at the airport on arrival, escort them to a private apartment provided by DVI, and ensure their safety and comfort throughout their stay. Safety issues over the past three years have impacted the clinic's effectiveness. With an unemployment rate of over 11 percent, almost no foreign investment in the Israeli economy, and tourism dwindling to a small fraction of what it was three to four years ago, the number of children living in poverty is greater than ever. Unfortunately, as the demand for services has increased, the number of volunteer dentists has decreased. "Before the crisis period, we had a six to eight month waiting list of dentists who wanted to volunteer. Now, we are short-handed," notes Dr. Moskovitz. Even so, the clinic still treats over 1,000 children per month.

DVI needs volunteer dentists. If you are interested in volunteering, the staff asks that you visit the Web site at www.dental-dvi.co.il. If you would like to speak with a recent volunteer, contact Dr. Bruce Sherizen at his office at (734) 284-2620. If you cannot donate time, but would still like to support this cause, monetary donations can be sent to "Friends of DVI," c/o Mrs. Lila Seiler, 11 Sage Circle, Scarsdale, NY 10583.

Dr. Keith Phillips maintains a private practice in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is president and founder of The Giving Hand Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to the start-up and development of free medical and dental clinics. Dr. Phillips also serves as a teaching associate at the L.D. Pankey Institute, and is a former faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.

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