Sahar Alrayyes goes a long distance to bring care to special needs children
As a pediatric dentist and clinical associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, Sahar Alrayyes teaches other dentists how to treat children. But when she makes one of her numerous mission trips to the Middle East, she also teaches parents and children with special needs how to do preventative care.
Dr. Alrayyes said there is a push to teach the families of children with special needs the importance of good dental hygiene including brushing, flossing and avoiding foods such as sugary treats that can have a detrimental effect on a child’s dental heath. And nothing gives Dr. Alrayyes as much pleasure as making a return trip and hearing from the parents that they are following her advice.
“It is music to my ears,” Dr. Alrayyes said.
She has had plenty of opportunities to get such great feedback.
Working with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, she has provided service in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as well as in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. She was scheduled to travel to Gaza at the end of March, having returned late last year from her fourth trip to Bethlehem.
“I’ve been committed to treating special needs children for sometime,” Dr. Alrayyes explained. “I received a grant from the ADA on how to treat children with autism.”
On her trips, she trains dental students as well as general dentists.
“The perception is that they (special needs children) are hard patients to treat, but I am trying to break the stigma that they can’t be treated in the dental chair,” Dr. Alrayyes said.
“Any dental provider can do an exam or even restoration work as well” on children with special needs, she added.
She said word of mouth is the best way for dentists in the West Bank area to know that there are resources available when she visits.
Besides the West Bank, Dr. Alrayyes has also done missions and provided services.
She usually spends a week at a time when traveling, staying at a hotel near where she will be working.
The first day of her mission is typically spent screening the children on a list of patients and determining what needs are to be done, and setting up a schedule for the work. Dr. Alrayyes said she treats 30 to 50 patients during her week in an area, with much of the work entailing full mouth rehabilitation, which, at times, requires the patient to be under general anesthesia.
She said the issue of poor dental hygiene for special needs children is “not so much cultural,” but rooted in the fact that there is not enough education about proper dental health available.
“They don’t go to the dentist unless there is a problem,” she said of many of the people she encounters in the Middle East. “If there is pain then they go to the dentist, if there is no pain they don’t go.”
Yet, she said it has been her experience that families in the West Bank area do see the benefits of seeing a dentist and getting care.
“These parents would travel two to three hours on public transportation just to get where we are,” she said of the effort many families take to get care when it is available.
Besides the professional gratification associated with the trips, Dr. Alrayyes said she also enjoys other aspects of traveling in an area that has deep historical significance for many cultures.
“I like the simplicity,” she said. “People ask me if I feel safe. I feel more safe there than walking the street at night in Chicago.”
Dr. Alrayyes said she is in awe of the ancient structures that have survived for centuries as well as the eclectic cuisine that can nourish the soul and the body.
“There is a real history (to the West Bank) especially with all of the interfaith aspects, it is nice to see all these sites, how old they are and what complexity there is. It is interesting to see how big these sites are and how they were built all those years ago,” Dr. Alrayyes said.
But she finds helping people the most rewarding part of her trips, she emphasized.
“The people are so nice, the food there is good, but what makes you feel really good is that you could serve the underserved.”
Mr. DeRosier is the CDS staff writer.
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