Putting a smile on the street
Sniffing glue to suppress hunger pangs is just one of many depressing daily rituals performed by the street kids of Romania.
Living in squalor, often in tunnels beneath the country’s major cities, these forsaken children will do anything to survive.
Needless to say, oral hygiene rates pretty low on their list of day-to-day priorities, but by neglecting their teeth these children often end up suffering intolerable pain.
While much is being made about the need to improve oral hygiene among children in Scotland, two dentists here are focusing on the plight of those in a much less privileged country.
Eoin MacGillivray, now retired, is determined to use his time, money and skills to help treat these street children, who, unlike their Scottish peers, have no access to free dental care.
When he was working out of his practice in Bridge of Weir, Eoin had travelled to Romania to run a couple of projects that were designed to help these children. Sadly, he had to give up this work at the age of 47, when he retired from dentistry due to ill heath.
Eight years on, however, he has been drawn back to Romania, inspired by two friends who have opened a centre in Arad, dedicated to helping the street children there.
With the help of friend Andy MacKinnon, a dentist based in the east end of Glasgow, Eoin is now fully ensconced in plans to set up a medical/dental facility in the basement of this centre, situated in western Romania, in the Criflana region, on the river Murefl.
Once the basement is officially up and running, Eoin said both he and Andy will fly out frequently from the UK to help manage things, while a couple of Romanian dentists and a doctor will staff the facility on a more regular basis.
To the casual observer this might seem like a lot of effort for very little reward, but as a humanitarian Eoin believes his new Romanian project is a necessity. After taking inspiration from his two friends already out there, he said he felt compelled to offer his help.
“My friends, who are both teachers, felt they needed to put something more permanent in place for the children and so they privately raised funds to renovate and open this centre,” Eoin told Scottish Dental magazine.
“The centre is a place for the poor and Roma to come and get food, wash, get their clothes washed and get some peace.
“My friends originally went out to Romania to drive some of my dental equipment into the country but were so moved by the plight of the children they ended up moving out there with their families the next year. Their children were educated there and they now have a daughter who is a student medic. It makes sense that I should offer the centre what I can in terms of promoting oral hygiene. It’s a humanitarian project, not a business venture. It’s an interesting and rewarding experience as well.”
And by offering his help, Eoin will be able to rekindle his love of a profession that was cut cruelly short.
Although he beat cancer, Eoin had to retire from dentistry at the age of 47. The chemotherapy, though saving his life, left him with problems in his day-to-day functionality, the more major in relation to dentistry being peripheral neuropathy – which means he cannot feel with his fingers.
“Yes it was sad, but I live for today,” Eoin said. “You can’t go back, you have to go forward. I’m still involved in lots of other things as well, such as the health board, children’s panel and so on. I do a lot of work with children.”
So, not wanting to undertake this epic new Romanian project alone, Eoin has enlisted the help of his close friend Andy MacKinnon.
“Andy did his work experience with me when he was at school and then went on to do dentistry,” Eoin said. “We both attend West Glasgow New Church and it supports the work we want to do, and has done for many years, and we feel that our project is an extension of this humanitarian work.”
And due to Eoin’s medical condition, Andy will carry out the bulk of the practical work involved.
“Eoin facilitates,” Andy explained. “He’ll get the surgery set up and I’ll do the clinical stuff. Eoin knows what is needed in terms of dental equipment and how to put that dental equipment in place. We didn’t need engineers as much as you may think because Eoin knows what he’s doing – he’s already been out to Arad and knows the requirements.”
While Eoin is retired, Andy is still a working man. However, he insists his trips to Arad won’t affect his own practice in Glasgow.
“The huge advantage is I’m self-employed and can take time off whenever I want,” he said. “Obviously I don’t earn when I take time off but the idea is to set this up and then get other dentists to go out there too, such as friends of ours, Romanian dentists and so on, meaning I don’t have to be there all the time.”
The street centre itself is a 100-year-old building that served as a jeweller’s workshop prior to being renovated by Eoin’s friends. The basement, however, was still in a state of disrepair when Eoin and Andy came out to have a look.
“The basement was riddled with cobwebs and the floor was flooded before work started,”Andy said. “It was a huge job for the builders but they did a great job getting it inhabitable. The courtyard up above is now the waiting room for the surgery. It all looks quite lovely.”
The building work was paid for by funds raised from ceilidhs held in Scotland and also from a support group in Falkirk.
“We pay for flights and other smaller costs ourselves,” Andy added.
Charity Dentaid and other UK businesses have provided most of the surgical equipment – chair, handpieces and so on – with Eoin and Andy only now missing a dental light, delivery cart, compressor and some cabinets.
“We need to demonstrate a proper surgery to proper standards in order to get the necessary certificates,” said Andy. “We feel that this should actually be measured against UK standards, which are higher than those in Romania, so that is what we have set out to achieve.”
“We have made contact with the local dental committee and the registration is ongoing,” Eoin added.
As for staffing, Andy said he is relying on a lot of good will from local practioners.
“We hope that Romanian dentists will help out and we have some contacts there who have made such promises,” he said. “Our aim is to get a retired Romanian dentist to work in the clinic once a week. When we achieve this we will be more able to assess the impact of our work. The Romanian dentists and doctors will all volunteer their time as a service to society. Most are humanitarian and feel they should do this.”
Exacerbated by the collapse of communism at the end of the ’80s, poverty is rife in Romania. Although most of the country’s street children are in desperate need of dental care, they have grown suspicious of anyone offering to help them for free.
So, in a bid to gauge demand and see how practical the basement would be in treating a broad church of dental ailments, Andy performed a session in the half-fitted facility last October.
“These people were not getting any treatment before,” he said. “The common problems among street kids from what I could see are carious or rotten teeth. Their biggest needs would be extractions and advice.”
Street kids are not all children, a lot of them are now in their twenties and thirties, but they’re still known as kids.
“A number of these adult patients came in too,” Andy said. “They had suffered toothache and extreme pain for months prior to us doing treatment. Extracting the rotten teeth relieve
d this problem immediately.”
Most of the children in Arad do not own a toothbrush either, according to Andy, and so he and Eoin plan to provide these and toothpaste for a number of families, backed up with simple advice on how to brush their teeth properly. Andy said: “We are going to go around schools, nurseries and the streets with an interpreter, and get them to come along to our surgery. Poor kids in Romania do not go to see a dentist. There’s no NHS – they simply can’t afford it.
“But, believe it or not, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the tooth decay rates of these street kids and the children in the east end of Glasgow, where I work. The decay rates in the east end are probably as bad as anywhere in Europe, as is well documented.
“But at least the kids in Glasgow have access to a dentist. Romanian street kids simply don’t. Not seeing a dentist regularly can create a fear of them too and that’s something we want to help the kids of Arad get over.”
While Andy will endeavour to provide the same treatment to the children of Arad as he would those at his Ruchazie practice, at the moment he said he cannot offer replacement teeth when he has to extract.
“The problem is paying for it,” he said. “We’ve not gone that far yet. We’re just looking at providing emergency care for the time being. We would need to raise more money to set up something to fund tooth replacement and more complex surgery.
“But who knows what the future will hold and how the surgery will develop. Right now I just want to urge as many dentists as possible who read this article to consider coming out here to help. It’s a very worthwhile cause.”
If you would like to offer your help or get more information on the Romanian project, contact Andy MacKinnon on 0141 774 9467 or by email at
The basement surgery in Arad won’t be used by dentists seven days a week. It will also be used by local specialists to offer free eye tests to the street children, as well as HIV and AIDS tests, and chiropody.
Many of Arad’s poor and Roma have made their way to Govanhill in Glasgow, where they attempt to earn a living selling The Big Issue on the city’s streets.
Street kids in Romania are usually a mixture of those who have come out of orphanages – either by running away or turning eighteen – or are runaways from abusive homes. There are also kids born on the streets whose parents are also street kids.
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