March 04, 2015
When Greta Castonguay set out as the very first Susquehanna student to travel to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea on a Global Opportunities (GO) trip, she had no way of knowing the experience would awaken in her a passion for health education and advocacy.
Castonguay, a junior from Turner, Maine, is a biology major with a minor in healthcare studies with plans to pursue a career in dentistry. While on her 12-week GO trip in Equatorial Guinea, she shadowed a local dentist in a clinic in Malabo, the capital city of the Spanish-speaking nation on the western coast of Africa.
It was an eye-opening experience, though perhaps not for good reasons.
"I've done 90 hours of shadowing in the U.S. and saw more extractions and root canals in Equatorial Guinea than I ever saw here," Castonguay recalled. "Our dental health is a window into our overall health and it was sad to see."
She described one teenager who was facing the loss of all of his molars at the age of 14. "He'll have a denture by the age of 15," she said.
As Castonguay came to learn from her mentor, Dr. Monica Dumitrescu, with no health insurance, many in Equatorial Guinea cannot afford dental care. So when dental issues arise, home remedies are often the first course of treatment before patients seek medical care. At that point, minor issues have progressed to more serious infections.
"Almost every single patient left with antibiotics," she said. "And that's not ideal either."
Castonguay couldn't help but wonder how far education and advocacy would go toward preventing these problems before they even started.
"If they just had education in schools and parents had the resources ..." Castonguay said. She hopes to one day go back to Equatorial Guinea to provide just that, and already has ideas of returning with dental health supplies that could be distributed by schools.
"The great thing about education is that it keeps going," she said. "I could go back for one or two months and it could have a lasting impact."
Castonguay's time in Equatorial Guinea offered her a varied experience that extended far beyond her time in the dental clinic. She also had the opportunity to catalogue different species of birds and primates found along the country's southern beaches in an effort to monitor the impact local agricultural efforts have on the region's biodiversity. She even witnessed the nesting of the island's great sea turtles.
"It was amazing," she said. "How many people can say they've seen something like that?"