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News | June 19, 2019

U.S. Military Dentist Treats Patients in Guatemala

By Sgt. Anshu Pandeya, 372nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

CHIANTLA, Guatemala – Sometimes in the U.S. one might take for granted the privilege of being able to seek treatment from a doctor or dentist. That's not the case here, where hundreds of people without means are waiting in line for that opportunity, and Joel Whiteman is here to help.

Maj. Whiteman is a dentist with the 185th Dental Company (Area Support) based in Garden Grove, Calif., and he is here participating in a medical training exercise during Beyond the Horizon.

Beyond the Horizon is a joint annual training exercise that combines medical, dental, veterinary and engineering missions to improve the operational readiness of U.S. Forces and reinforce regional stability and interoperability with allied forces, resulting in tangible benefits to the people of Guatemala.

“It makes you feel good,” says Whiteman, who has his own private practice on the civilian side. “It's the kind of stuff that you think you are going to do in dental school. 'I'm going to change the world and help people all over the place.' You feel really optimistic, but then you hit private practice, and a lot of that goes away. You have to run a business, make money, pay bills. Doing stuff like this, the altruistic nature comes out.”

Whiteman sees all manners of patients from young to old. Kids can be difficult, but Whiteman finds a way.

“The key with little kids is speed,” he explains. “The faster you are, the easier it is on them, the easier it is on you. It's just going to make it, worse the longer you take.”
Coming from private practice to a medical exercise like that in Guatemala, there are some key differences and limitations. At home in Sacramento, Whiteman has time to develop a rapport with his regular patients. Here though, time with patients is brief, but there is already an inherent respect for his position.

Whiteman extracted two baby teeth fused together from Elizabeth Mendoza. Her mother Francisca was very grateful. 

“I feel great because my daughter is receiving care,” Francisca says as she watches him extract the fused teeth. I think that's something good, thanks to God.”
While Whiteman is happy to help the people of Chiantla, he wishes he could do more.

“The thing that's hard is when you are here, you see a lot of little kids like this that have preventable care,” he says. “In the States there is a lot we can do about that. We can catch it early. In other countries, it just breaks your heart as a dentist.”

Even so, being in another country, people appreciate the care just as much, even if they don't speak the same language.

“The care you express is universal,” he says. “It passes any and all language barriers. If you care about people, it shows. No matter if you can speak the language or you can't, it crosses cultures, crosses everything.”