KINGMAN Kingman dentist Regina Cobb knew from a briefing that medicine and dentistry in Vietnam would scarcely resemble those professions in the United States.
However, she was eager to be part of a group of 10 family practice professionals that traveled to Hanoi on Oct. 30 for two weeks of treating anyone in need of care. Cobb was the lone dentist in the group that included a hygienist from Tucson, doctors, nurses and ophthalmologists.
The trip was arranged by RSI (Resources Exchange International) Vietnam, although participants had to pay their own expenses.
"They have six or seven types of groups that go over there on two-week rotations to provide care in a wide range of fields," Cobb said. "There's a specialty medicine group, pediatrics group, even a water treatment group."
Cobb alternated her time at Tan Chai and Bachmei hospitals in Hanoi. She put in 10.5 working days during the trip, seeing and treating more than 500 patients that needed such dental services as fillings, root canals and extractions.
There was never a shortage of patients. Cobb said she had a roomful waiting on her first day and a line backed up out the door her second day at work.
"They're in the Dark Ages there as far as dentistry," she said.
"A lot of what I did was teaching since nearly all of their dentists are interns. I had as many as 20 of them looking over my shoulder while I treated some patients."
Because Vietnam is a communist country all of its medical facilities are owned by the government, she said.
A new dental chair was in its original box covered by an inch-thick layer of dust at Tan Chai Hospital when she arrived. Nobody knew how to assemble the chair, so Cobb did so and got it running.
But an even greater need was for an X-ray machine. She hopes one will be available when she makes another trip to Hanoi with the group in September.
Cobb, who was born in San Diego, knew there would be a lack of many items available in America, so she took two suitcases of supplies on the trip. She said she left six anesthetic syringes behind, three at each of the hospitals.
"They have dental supplies, but they're rather limited and archaic," she said.
"They thought I was wasteful with sterile gloves that we use once and discard. The most shocking sight to me was seeing many of my gloves on a windowsill airing out so they could be used again."
In addition, she bought about $200 worth of surgical instruments from a dental supply company while she was there, Cobb said.
A shortage of competent medical care made it necessary for Cobb to work outside the realm of dentistry at times. One such occasion was in sewing up the lacerated forehead of a man who had fallen off his motorbike and gotten gravel into the laceration. It took about 30 internal and 30 external stitches to repair the injury, she said.
"Dentists there work for the government from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., which includes a lunch break in which most of them take a siesta," Cobb said.
"They can have a private practice in a room of their homes, most of which are 600 to 800 square feet. Most of the dentists do treat patients in their homes after hours."
Cobb met one dentist, who went into the profession based on his score on an aptitude test given by the government. He had aspired to be a social worker, she said.
In briefings before the trip, Cobb and her fellow group members had been cautioned not to speak of God, Jesus, Christianity or the Bible in Vietnam. They also were warned any e-mail messages transmitted or received would be monitored, along with phone calls.
Despite those restrictions, Cobb said she felt very safe during runs she made each morning at 4 a.m. Many other people were out for exercise at the same time. On her final night in Hanoi, Cobb met with Tan Chai administrators. She told them much progress had been made in teaching and she was happy to get the dental chair into operation.
She stressed the need for an X-ray machine and officials seemed amenable to the idea.
"The trip was a financial burden, but well worth it," Cobb said.
Cobb moved from Cleveland to Kingman in May 1993 after buying a dental practice here.
In her spare time, she enjoys running half marathons and 10-K races, hunting, boating and water sports.
Neighbors is a feature that appears Monday in the Kingman Daily Miner. If you have an interesting story you'd like to share, contact Terry Organ at 753-6397 ext. 225.