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Watertown doctor creates smiles in Guatemala


Dr. Peter M. Virga didn’t know what to think of the guys with the shotguns guarding the clinic.

“Sort of what they did all day was you talked to them,” Dr. Virga said. “I never felt threatened or endangered.”

It may have just been a sign of how much people in rural Guatemala prized the dental clinic, which was built in January in Peronia by Spear Education, a facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., that is dedicated to advancing the education of dentists. Dr. Virga is on Spear’s visiting faculty, where he teaches and mentors other doctors. His personal mentor is the CEO of the Scottsdale Center, Imtiaz Manji.

When Dr. Virga, of Watertown, was asked to travel to the Guatemala clinic to volunteer his dental skills, he didn’t think twice.

“It was an easy sell,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of abundance in my life. I’ve been very lucky to have been successful, and I thought it would be something I might enjoy doing. It turned out to be way above that.”

Guatemala, according to the CIA World Factbook, is the most populous country in Central America. The “developing country,” bordered by Mexico on the north, has a gross domestic product per capita that’s roughly one-half that of the average for Latin America.

Spear hopes to staff the clinic with teams of five volunteer doctors for a total of 40 weeks a year. The doctors pay their own way and also are expected to make a monetary donation to the clinic.

Spear hopes to establish, through stopping something as simple as a toothache, a sense of hope in a community. It believes that hope can help lead to economic recovery in a community.

Dr. Virga, along with dentists from California, St. Louis and Washington state, was at the clinic Nov. 2 to 10. Dr. Virga’s wife, Janicca L. Clark-Virga, accompanied him and assisted in the clinic as a non-medical professional. The visitors stayed in Antigua, a World Heritage Site in the central highlands noted for its Spanish baroque architecture. The city is rimmed by three volcanoes. It was a 40-minute daily uphill van ride to the Peronia clinic.

Spear Education hopes it is the first of several around the world. The clinics, part of its Open Wide project, are designed to function independently within five years.

Until then, doctors like Dr. Virga, a partner at Watertown Dental Health Group, will help the clinics find their this legs. Finding patients with tooth issues is not hard.

When Dr. Virga and the three other dentists in his group showed up at the clinic, lines of patients flowed out the waiting room door.

“The availability of treatment, let alone the ability to pay, is not there,” Dr. Virga said. “We easily saw several hundred patients that week.”

The difference between the touristy Antigua and the more rural Peronia was striking, Dr. Virga said.

“There were wild horses that would come right up to the fence of the clinic, and there were people who had cows that were just roaming around,” he said.

The equipment at the clinic, Dr. Virga said, is state-of-the-art because Spear was able to bring major dental suppliers on board.

“They were able to make this place where you can really make a difference to people,” he said.

The patients’ ages ranged from 5 to about 75, Dr. Virga said. Most visits dealt with fillings or tooth extractions.

Dr. Virga also brought and distributed dozens of toothbrushes.

“You could tell that toothbrushes are not widely used or distributed,” Dr. Virga said. “There’s lots of oral hygiene issues.”

The Guatemalans, Dr. Virga said, were appreciative of the services.

“I can’t count the number of hugs, thank-yous and looks of appreciation in peoples’ eyes,” he said. “It was very empowering for me to know that these people, in most cases, had walked miles to get to the clinic. And they were hoping for nothing more than probably to be out of pain.”

Dr. Virga plans to return for another week at the Spear project in Guatemala early next year. He hopes to persuade some of his classmates at Georgetown University School of Dentistry to get involved. Other associates have shown interest, but haven’t committed.

“My wife and I have gained so much by going to Guatemala; I want to share that with others,” Dr. Virga said.

For Mrs. Clark-Virga, the resulting smiles following the procedures left an impression.

“It was so fulfilling,” she said. “You take life for granted and this puts things in perspective, for us at least. It makes you appreciate the good life Americans do have compared to other countries.”

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The trip also moved the couple in another way. On Nov. 7, Central America was rattled by a 7.5-magnitude earthquake centered about 15 miles off the coastal town of Champerico, Guatemala.

“It was about 150 miles from us,” Dr. Virga said. “I’ve never been in an earthquake. Initially, it was just some rumbling.”

That rumbling turned into a rolling wave.

“I sort of felt like I was in the ocean. It went on for 30 seconds, to the point where I was almost motion sick at the end of it,” Dr. Virga said.

The Guatamalans, Dr. Virga said, had obviously been through an earthquake before, but they showed some concern, but relief when the rolling stopped.

There was destruction and fatalities near the coast, but the Open Wide clinic was not damaged and there were no injuries.

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