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Dr. Steed takes dentistry from Pincher Creek to Tonga

Friday, 01 May 2020. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Dr. Steed takes dentistry from Pincher Creek to Tonga

Dr. Greg Steed’s patients were all smiles after getting dental work done at a community clinic in Tonga. Below, Dr. Steed takes a break with his wife, Cheralyn.     Photos courtesy of Dr. Greg Steed

Dr. Steed takes dentistry from Pincher Creek to Tonga

By Jenaya Launstein

Dr. Greg Steed recently completed a humanitarian dental mission in Tongatapu, Tonga. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 26, he helped more patients than he could accurately count and made a difference to people there, who are lacking in even the most basic dental care.

The island of Tongatapu is the largest in Tonga, with an area of 260.5 kilometres. Tongatapu’s highest elevation is 65 metres (213 feet), a stark contrast from Pincher Creek’s 1,130 metres (3,710 feet) and Crowsnest Pass’s 1,358 metres (4,455 feet).

“I’ve been to the southern Philippines twice doing humanitarian dental work and I had a good experience there, but I thought I’d try something different,” explains the dentist, whose home base is Ascent Dental in Pincher Creek.

Dr. Steed first learned about Tonga through the humanitarian arm of his church — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It had helped establish a permanent community clinic at the LDS school there.

The clinic is open to everyone on the island and is not limited to church members.

“Tonga is a very interesting place because the people there are very religious,” he says. “They belong to different churches, but on Sunday everything closes down.”

Residents of Tonga speak their native language, Tongan, but English is taught in all the schools. Volunteers were at the clinic to assist with communication when needed.

On the main island, there are about 105,000 people, says Dr. Steed. He also mentions that Tonga has a big diet issue. “They don’t have an appreciation for good diet — that affects their dental health.”

Referencing the economy, Dr. Steed says residents get by on foreign aid and money that’s sent to them from Tongans who have left the islands. The people survive on a very limited income.

“There’s a high percentage of the people on the islands that are living basically on subsistence agriculture,” Dr. Steed continues, explaining that Tonga is an independent monarchy that owns all the land and allots it to people. Most of the people have land, though small, that they grow things on.

“The humanitarian wing of the church donates a little bit for equipment,” says Dr. Steed, adding that dentists are encouraged to take their own supplies on their missions. 

A couple of the main dental supply companies in Alberta donated supplies to Dr. Steed for the trip and Pincher Creek Pharmasave donated antibiotics and painkillers. This amounted to a 50-pound suitcase filled with medication and restoratives.

What wasn’t used was left behind for the clinic in Tonga.

“Different volunteers go to the clinic. There’s a dental school down in the States, in Arizona, that sends dental students there to help out during the year. That way, this community clinic has stayed open. It’s free for anyone who comes.”

There was one other dentist at the clinic while Dr. Steed was there. People would start lining up at 8 a.m. and chairs were placed outside so they could sit down while they waited.

After waiting for hours, some had to return the following day because of how busy the clinic was. Often they weren’t bothered by it and would thank the dentists for their time.

“They’re very gracious,” he says.

Obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are very common in the area. In fact, the life expectancy in the islands is, on average, in the low 60s.

Patients ranged anywhere from three years old to late 70s. Most of the children’s issues were cavities. 

When diabetes isn’t controlled well, people are more prone to gum disease and Dr. Steed says acute problems are common.

Dr. Steed met weekly with local dentists to talk about techniques, materials and such things, and says the dentists there are quite overwhelmed.

As an example, he shared the story of a compressor that had broken down at the hospital. Nobody could fix it, so no dentistry was performed for quite a while. Patients were sent to the two dental offices on the island or the community clinic, making for a busy workload. 

Luckily, the compressor had been repaired by the time Dr. Steed arrived.

While he had weekends off to travel the island with his wife, Cheralyn, Dr. Steed says the trip was not a vacation. “I’m not a martyr, I enjoyed the trip and the experience, and I think I made a difference for lots of people and made a little contribution.”

A self-described history nut, Dr. Steed had the opportunity to travel to where Captain James Cook first landed in Tonga almost 250 years ago. 

Captain Cook arrived on the southern islands in 1773 and returned again not long after. On his return, the captain received such a welcome that he dubbed Tonga “the friendly islands,” a name that remains to this day.

No cases of COVID-19 were present while Dr. Steed was in Tonga and, according to the most recent reports found, that is still the case. 

“By mid March they had closed the whole country down. There were no flights coming in or out, they just shut the country down,” he says. “COVID-19 is a huge issue for us right now. When I was there, even in February, unfortunately we weren’t worried about it too much in Canada. They were quite concerned about it there.”

“When we flew in, Feb. 1, they were doing more checking with masks on and protective [equipment] at the border when we landed in Tonga at this little airport than we got in Canada or the United States flying there or flying back,” he adds. 

This surprised him, and he says Tongan residents were quite concerned since they don’t have good health care. 

“If that gets going on that island, it’s not like they’ve got a bunch of intensive care units, beds and things. Typically if somebody gets really sick on the island and they can have somebody take care of them, they’re putting them on a plane to New Zealand,” says Dr. Steed.

Since his return to Pincher Creek, Dr. Steed and fellow practitioners are adhering to all protocols and guidelines with regard to the pandemic and Ascent Dental is currently open for emergencies only, keeping in line with service suspensions announced by the Alberta Dental Association and College.

“I find it very frustrating, because we wanted to be part of the isolation to slow things down as far as its spread [the virus],” Dr. Steed says.

What qualifies as an emergency? According to the ADA&C, emergencies may include “oral-facial trauma, significant infection, prolonged bleeding or pain which cannot be managed by over-the-counter medications.”

Dr. Steed says that Ascent Dental is fortunate, as they have obtained the necessary protective equipment needed to work on clients once they are able to reopen.

Someone is at the office every day answering calls, so should you have a dental emergency, you can call 403-627-3290.

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