As I am getting ready to return to the Congo for my first time since we had to evacuate in 1991, I am remembering. Some of the memories are funny, some sad, some just, well, remembrances. Over the next few months till I go I will share some of the memories. Not every day but maybe once in awhile. So here goes…
A Little Calcium for the … Egg Shells
Songo and I had worked together for a number of years. Because I had taught him dentistry, we were pretty close in how we diagnosed dental disease a must for carrying out a WHO (World Health Organization) survey. We had been in the village for about three days and since the survey for the WHO study was pretty much finished, we thanked the village by attending to some of the communities dental needs. This meant extractions since we were working under the trees, in the open air with the sun for light.
Songo was my first real dental student. He finished secondary school but failed to pass the difficult state exams and did not have the financial resources to either go back and repeat another year of school, pay to take the exams again or bribe anyone to improve his marks. So as many guys in his situation, he had begun to teach school himself because teachers were always in demand. I had asked around about a promising new grad who might be interested in learning dentistry by studying and by apprenticeship. He had been interested and over the years as we studied and learned together, I passed on to him all I ever knew. And he in turn taught me some valuable lessons mostly about patience and tact and trust. He was a God send.
Extracting teeth has a range of difficulty from very simple to extremely hard. Most require a bit of effort and a lot of technique. Working in a place without access to x-rays can result in some surprises but most of the time you develop a feel for the tooth and sense when it is going to move or resist all efforts to get it out. So a tooth that resisted all our efforts to get it to move with an elevator would most likely get sent away to the hospital where we would have more tools to attack it with.
So Songo and I lined up our patients and began to work there in our portable chairs with our boiling pot of water for sterilization in between. Natural lighting, natural air conditioning and free entertainment the rest of the village, cats, dogs, goats and chickens watched and cheered on the poor patients.
Now we know that calcium is necessary for strong bones and teeth and egg shells. In the center of the Congo far from pulverized seashells and other sources of the mineral, one collects and dries the old shells from the eggs and feeds them back to the flock. And I am sure that chickens pick up the odd bone that has been carelessly left uneaten by a human. On this particular day, a new source of calcium showed up teeth.
As I proceeded to lever the tooth of one patient from side to side, the root suddenly let go. The tooth shot out of my forceps, flew through the air and almost landed on the ground among the crowd. Almost. But it never hit the ground. A scrawny chicken looking for that coveted bit of calcium must have been eyeing what we were up to. It caught that tooth in mid air and, as fast as it had reacted to catch it, disappeared into the grass surrounding the village. Now that to me is an amazing bit of recycling!