Addressing oral health needs in times of crisis 

By Elia E. Rivera Soto, Compliance Officer, Delta Dental of Puerto Rico, Inc., and Edna V. Declet Perez, Wellness Representative, Delta Dental of Puerto Rico, Inc.

Editors Note: This interview was originally conducted in Spanish and has been translated and edited for clarity.

Puerto Rico has faced many challenges over the past few years, devastated by numerous hurricanes. Setbacks, however, carry opportunity, and we are so proud of the many amazing leaders across the island that have stepped up to help communities. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we had the chance to sit down with Dr. Liliam Ortiz, who oversees the Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico, Missionary Dentists of Puerto Rico, to learn more about the work their organization is doing to advance oral health for all.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico originated.

A: I am the president of Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico. Before becoming a dentist, I was a nurse, where I learned that we have to treat every patient as if they were part of our family.

In 2000, I went on my first international mission serving as a dentist in the Dominican Republic, where I met other dentists with a passion for service. But it was not until a decade later, in 2010, that we decided to organize as an entity, motivated by Delta Dental of Puerto Rico. From there, Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico was born.

We conduct 8-9 missions per year in addition to collaborating with Colgate and conducting school visits to educate children, make evaluations, referrals, and apply fluoride varnish. 

Q: How have missions evolved over time?

A: With the recent devastation from natural disasters, we refocused our efforts at home and scaled back our larger Caribbean service efforts. After Hurricane Maria the dental clinics were all closed and the hospital emergency rooms were filling with dental cases. We decided to open clinics in shelters, remote places that had difficulty of access and in different points of the island to manage the demand. After the earthquakes, we moved to the southern area of the island to help colleagues who could not open their offices because of damage so that they could care for their patients and other patients in need. Now with Covid-19 there is less operational capacity in the dental offices, so we are helping the communities of Vieques and Culebra that are currently the most in need.

Q: In Puerto Rico, what has been the greatest oral health challenge you’ve seen?

A: One major challenge is the fear of dentists, which is often generational. Another challenge is oral health literacy. Care and prevention are issues that we must educate the community on and are part of our work.

Q: What has been the biggest obstacle that Dentistas Misioneros has faced?

A: When we started, it was the lack of equipment, but today it’s dental materials and dentists who are able to volunteer their time.

Dr. Liliam Ortiz with children Dentistas Misineros serves on its missions. Her head accessories are intended to make the children feel more comfortable.

Q: Do you have any anecdotes you’d like to share with us?

On a mission in Africa, I helped a nurse who had several oral health issues. Although it turned out to be a little more work than I saw at first glance, it was an impressive improvement. She gave me a big hug and told me that every time she looked in the mirror and smile, she would remember me. 

Q: What do you see for your future and the Dentistas Misioneros?

A: The global missions have become high-risk due to the pandemic. For now, we continue working and providing simpler services. But as soon as the situation improves, we will return to these beneficial and important missions.

Personally, I would like to retire from my private practice and devote myself fully to the management of the missions. It’s what gives me satisfaction and it is what I want to continue doing. I want to be able to get recurring funds to pay for everything related to the missions and to have an exclusive store to organize all the equipment we have and to be able to give the care and maintenance the equipment needs. I wish to continue to help and impact those in need through the missions and the Dentistas Misioneros

Q: What has been the most satisfying part of these mission efforts?

A: There is nothing better than that satisfaction of patients when they have been helped. That thank you can’t be paid with any amount of money. Those smiles, hugs, and those little tokens of appreciation that patients give you in gratitude for our work.

You can learn more about Delta Dental of Puerto Rico at https://deltadentalpr.com/ and Dentistas Misioneros de Puerto Rico at https://www.facebook.com/DMDPR2011