Monday, December 12, 2011

Volunteering in Cambodia

by HM1 (SW/AW) Jonna Obermiller

For as far back as I can remember I’ve had a passion for the dental field, it probably stemmed from the fact that my uncle was a dental lab technician in the Navy. I remember being in his lab playing with wax on the lathe and in his drawers of plastic teeth.

I joined the Navy a little over 13 years ago as a deck seaman. I was a striker and knew I wanted to be a dental  tech. At the time we had two separate ratings – DT (dental technician) and HM (hospital corpsman).  When the two ratings merged I had the NEC 8752 (basic lab technician) and now 8708 (dental hygienist), so I’ve always worked in dental.

Shortly after the ship moved to Washington I was looking for a way to get involved in the community doing something that I was passionate about. I found an organization called Medical Teams International that has mobile dental units that provide free dental care to low income and the homeless in the Seattle area. This became the perfect volunteer opportunity for me. I made good friends, later learning about the international volunteer opportunities the organization offered and before I knew it I was planning my first trip to Cambodia with MTI.
We left on October 20th. My team consisted of a dental assistant, Kathi and a dentist Dr. Melby (retired Navy) from Portland Oregon, both who have volunteered over 12 years with MTI. I was a little nervous about traveling with people I didn’t know, to an area I’ve never been but I kept reminding myself we all had the same mission.

We flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. From there it was a 10 hour bus ride to a small town boarding Vietnam called Bousra. It was at this time I felt myself getting nervous. The paved roads turned into narrow dirt roads full of potholes, the buildings no longer existed, and before I knew it we were in the country on a bumpy dirt road surrounded by roaming animals.  We must have been the talk of the town, because when our bus pulled up, everyone flocked to it; staring at us, waving and just trying to see what was going on.

The living conditions and the working conditions were bad. I knew we wouldn’t have electricity or running water but I didn’t realize how rough it would be.  It wasn’t exactly how I had interpreted the term ‘rustic living’ during the brief. I guess until you’re actually in that environment you don’t realize how hard it is.  No beds, no toilets, sleeping in bug tents, and bathing out of a bucket. I think for some people that would have been a deal breaker. They wouldn’t go if they knew that’s what they would be dealing with because it’s hard, but it’s not impossible.

It makes you feel really grateful and thankful for what you have. It made me realize what little I really need in life. There are still a few times that I get choked up thinking about my trip. But no matter how sad the situation may be I still smile when I think about how many lives I have touched and how big of a difference we made that during that week.

Our goal was to see a hundred patients a day, therefore our days were really long. I remember one day very clearly, I had finally gotten the chance to take a break when a woman holding her baby came up to me. Our translator told me that she had just given birth and she was in a lot of dental pain; but she was afraid to be seen and have it extracted because someone had told her that she would bleed to death. I explained to her that no such thing would happen and reassured her. We walked her through the whole tooth extraction process and she was so thankful. She returned the next day, put her hands together and bowed to thank us. It was really touching.

I loved working with the kids. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. One of the missionaries and I traveled to the local schools and provided patient education. We taught the kids the proper way to brush their teeth and handed out toothbrushes.   I had a big model of teeth and a toothbrush and the kids thought it was hilarious. Just seeing their laughter brought a warm smile to my face.

I saw a lot of adult patients who had never had their teeth cleaned. I saw stuff that I had never seen before, nothing that I could ever imagine seeing here in the states. The difference is tremendous, here we have access to toothbrushes and getting our teeth cleaned once a year, but these people don’t necessarily have toothbrushes and probably have never flossed. The lack of dental education completely amazed me.
My hands were definetly tired because I didn’t have all of the equipment that I’m used to having here on the ship. I didn’t have suction so my patient would have to sit up and spit in the garbage. They sat in lawn chairs with their head tilted back as I stood over them. I would stack the chairs to adjust their height. We ended up treating a total of 485 patients. I think I did around 87 cleanings that week. It was extremely tiring.
This was my first international volunteer trip, and the next chance I get I know I’ll do it again; theres no question in my mind. I got the chance to work with people who are so passionate about what they do and so compassionate for the people who they don’t even know, it was a life changing experience.  



  1. HI There I am setting up a new website for who help run the dental programs in Cambodia. can I use your awesome pictures on their site to promote the dental program and get donations? Cheers Kimberli

  2. Hi Jonna. I googled your name out of nostalgia and came across this article. What a tremendous opportunity and fulfilling experience you've described here! Anyways, I hope your life continues to bring you continued adventure, happiness and meaningful experiences. With kind thoughts, John Mango