A trip to Morocco changes a dentist's perspective

By Helen Adams

Walter Renne, DMD is fearless when it comes to performing complicated dental procedures on his patients at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Putting his trust in an airplane traveling hundreds of miles an hour is another matter.

“I’m not too used to going places.  I’m scared to fly,” Renne recently said in his office in MUSC’s Division of Restorative Dentistry. He’s not alone.  One study found that up to 40 percent of people have at least some anxiety about flying. But Renne did something that many of those people fail to do.   He got on an airplane anyway.  And not only did he fly to another city.  He flew to another continent.

Renne, a specialist in computer-aided restorative dentistry at MUSC, traveled more than 4,000 miles to North Africa.  That’s how strongly he believed in the value of helping in a free clinic in Morocco with a team of fellow volunteers from MUSC.

“The need there is so much more profound than the need here,” Renne said. 

Morocco may be best known in this country as the dramatic and glamorous setting for the 1942 film, Casablanca, but unfortunately, in the medical field, it’s known for something else as well:  poor health care. Less than a third of Moroccans have health insurance and Morocco’s own health minister has called his country’s standards of care inadequate. In May, nearly 50 people from MUSC, including Renne, went to Morocco to do what they could to help.  They are part of the Charleston chapter of Medical Campus Outreach (MCO).  MCO is a national organization that brings together teams of health care experts to do volunteer work in countries in need, such as Morocco.

“We had a team of people from MUSC from almost every discipline you can imagine,” Renne said. That included dentists, physicians, physicians’ assistants, nurses, pharmacists, occupational and physical therapists, and students. The MUSC team worked for two weeks in a clinic in Marrakesh, where the line of patients waiting for help stretched down a street.  The team helped everyone from the very old to the very young. 

Renne described the circumstances facing some of his younger patients.     

“So many children in pain with their teeth, with abscesses, just coming in crying.  To be able to remove that pain for them and send them home happy was just incredible,” Renne said.

The MUSC team found the work personally rewarding, and it served another purpose as well:  it offered the chance for MUSC students to work one-on-one with mentors in a fast-paced environment and allowed them to see what experts from other disciplines do.

“The students benefit greatly from this,” Renne said.  “Take for example just the dental team, which is the team I was with.  We’re together with everybody else, and so for the first time, the dental students might get to see exactly what physicians’ assistants do, and nursing and pharmacy.  We rely on everybody.  We come together as this great big team and get a new and profound appreciation for the rest of the medical profession.”

Renne plans to participate in future international work with the MUSC team, despite the fact that it will involve getting back on an airplane.

“It’s everything to reach out to the rest of the world in my opinion.  There’s nothing like traveling to a different area as a team of people with the same goal to ring together the various disciplines and see the miraculous teamwork that happens.”

Helen Adams is an intern in the Center for Global Health