Carmen Duran is a dentist and a long-time volunteer with Mano a Mano in Cochabamba, Bolivia. For the past two decades, she has participated in Mano a Mano’s weekend “jornadas” — dental and medical blitzes in which volunteer health care providers fly in to remote jungle communities to offer much-needed dental and medical care. Remarkably, this work is also what Dr. Duran does on weekdays, as a staff dentist with the nonprofit organization Samaritan’s Purse. Mano a Mano caught up with “Doctora Carmen” on a recent March morning, when she was in Trinidad, Bolivia, readying for yet another Amazonian dental adventure:

How did you start working with Mano a Mano?

A Mano a Mano employee named Nemecio was a patient of mine. He came in one day in the year 2000, and asked me whether I would like to do some volunteer work, flying in to jungle communities to provide dental care. I was very young, I had never been on a plane, much less a small, light plane. But serving others through a medical mission is something I’d wanted to do since I was a girl. So of course I said yes!

Nemecio, pictured here evaluating a baby, has been involved with Mano a Mano for decades.

Were you scared, getting on a plane for the first time, and flying into the jungle?

No, I think Nemecio was actually more worried than I was about whether I would tolerate the heat of the jungle, and whether I would be afraid on the airplane. But I loved it!

Carmen and volunteer dentists getting ready for a recent weekend health clinic on the Mano a Mano plane.

How often do you volunteer?

There was one year when I went on every single one of the jornadas (weekend medical trips). Now I’ve slowed down a little bit. Twenty years later, I am not quite as energetic as I used to be, but I still go about once a month. I also organize a team of about ten colleagues, who go out with me as often as they can.

Carmen with a patient during a weekend clinic in Ushbe, Bolivia.

What is the work like?

At first, when I started out, it was almost all extractions. People’s teeth were in such poor shape that they were beyond repair. And the conditions were difficult. Often we would be outdoors. The patients would just pull up a seat on a piece of wood, or a rock. We would work in fields, with the sheep milling around us, with of course no electricity. Often the doctors would be finished seeing patients before I was done. My work would stretch into the night, and so my colleagues would hold a flashlight so I could still see what I was doing.

How has the work changed?

Now that we have some portable equipment—seats that someone donated, and a portable drill that I borrow from a colleague—we are able to repair some teeth and fill cavities. We also teach about dental hygiene. We always try to make time to stop at the local school to talk to kids about brushing their teeth, and to give out toothbrushes.

Carmen distributing toothbrushes to kids

What is the reward for you?

I do it to serve God, by serving people. There was a time when I considered becoming a nun or a missionary, which would have meant leaving my dentistry studies. I considered it carefully, but then decided I could be of more service by becoming a dentist and helping people in need. And that’s what volunteering has allowed me to do.  Of course, the other reward is that I get to travel to so many parts of my beautiful country. We meet wonderful new people on every trip. And we always take a moment to have a little fun, to see some sights or go fishing.

What needs do you see in your work?

There’s a tremendous need for dental care in rural Bolivia, especially in the remote areas, where we can only visit once or twice a year. The need is great at all ages, but dental disease especially affects kids and teenagers, who get a lot of cavities. The problem is poor nutrition, lack of dental hygiene, and of course, sugary sweets. I see teenagers who have lost a lot of their adult teeth; molars or even front teeth. It really can affect a child’s self-esteem to be missing their front teeth; other kids will give them cruel nicknames. And older people, too, when their teeth are mostly gone, are unable to chew their food.

Dental care is an important part of the health care that Mano a Mano’s network of clinics provide. Our clinics had 896,346 patient visits in 2020; 170,995 of those visits (19% of all visits) were for dental care. 79 of the 525 medical professional that staff our 173 clinics are dentists. The problem: there are many rural Bolivian communities that still lack access to health care. That is where Mano a Mano’s weekend health clinics come in.

What’s the solution?

We would love to be able to give dentures to older people, and build crowns and bridges. But right now we don’t have the funds to do that. A portable drill costs about $2,500 for a good-quality one. And a dentist chair is maybe $800. It would be so wonderful to have proper equipment!

What else would you like people to know about the work you do?

It’s funny, people always prioritize medical care. It seems like our work is not important. But it is! If your teeth hurt, it affects your whole life. On one jornada, I had five patients waiting for me even before the plane landed. They had been up all night expecting us. One of them had been crying all night from the pain, her eyes were red and swollen. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be able to relieve that kind of misery.

Thank You Doctora Carmen!

Thank you to Doctora Carmen for her dedication to helping provide rural Bolivians with dental care, and for her dedication to Mano a Mano as a volunteer for multiple decades! Also, thanks to Mano a Mano volunteer Patricia Ohmans for interviewing Carmen and writing this post. We depend on our amazing volunteers like Carmen and Patricia, in Bolivia and Minnesota and elsewhere, to do our work!

Doctora Carmen sent us a brief report and pictures for the weekend health clinic (pictured here) carried out in coordination with our aviation program. This jornada took place in the Mocovi Jail in Trinidad, Bolivia in late 2020; 175 people received medical care and 85 received dental care. Free haircuts were also provided.

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Volunteer medical professionals traveling to Tentayapi to provide medical care for local residents there and from 2 neighboring communities. Along with transporting the volunteers, Mano a Mano’s plane also brought along some medical supplies and equipment to donate in Tentayapi.