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Dentists helping the poor in Haiti and Utah

Published: Saturday, March 7 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

After Bret Tobler arrives on the tropical isle sometime later today, he'll spend the rest of his week knuckle deep in the mouths of backcountry Haitians.

When their jet lands, the Utah County dentist and his wife, daughter and niece plan to immediately shake their jet lag, strap on supply-filled backpacks and hike into a remote village where they'll stay until March 14.

The Tobler family won't tread Haiti's roughshod trails alone, though. About 22 other physicians from Orem-based volunteer organization International Aid Serving Kids will also trek in to give free medical aid and education to children in the recently hurricane-ravaged nation.

"Less than 10 percent of those folks ever see a dentist in their life," Tobler said in an interview between treating patients Thursday. "So many walk around with such pain."

This isn't the family's first 1,500-mile trip to the only nation in the Americas that made the United Nations' Least Developed Countries list.

At least Tobler and one of his two sons land on the island of Hispaniola in Haiti or the Dominican Republic annually for such charity work. Both of his sons are dentists and work at his modern office, Stonehaven Dental, in Lehi. His wife is the office manager, and their daughter works alongside her father and brothers as a dental assistant.

To take advantage of the family's 6-year-old humanitarian tradition, each year villagers have walked for miles — and days — to secure their place in a line that leads to a tarp-covered, makeshift dental center among the trees.

"Once you go the first time, that's it," Tobler said. "You can't understand how poor they are until you're there and see their need."

As he has in past years, Tobler expects to rise with the sun, ask "who's next" about 70 times, pull about 80 teeth, and when it's too dark to tell the healthy from rotten teeth, he'll retire in exhaustion.

But the clean-cut dentist described those work-'til-you-drop days as getting "better every year" through a genuine smile as white and flawless as a Crest model's. "Because you get to know and love these people more with every year," he said.

The Toblers have gotten to know and love one villager in particular, Guichard, who took an interest in their profession two years ago when he assisted the team.

On their next visit in September, Tobler's son, Nate, taught Guichard the basics of numbing needles and yanking teeth.

The 20-something man is now, by local standards, the region's dental authority and has treated hundreds of patients since the team left months ago.

"He's going to do it anyway," said Tobler's wife, Penny, about Guichard extracting his neighbors' teeth after only a one-week crash course of dental school. "They've had to manage, but now at least those people have training about doing it safer and more sterile."

The organization will pass out hygiene kits, primarily to children, and the Toblers will leave Guichard with a new set of tools and a load of other supplies.

Besides relieving hundreds of throbbing pangs for people in exotic places, the Toblers regularly open their doors for charity in Utah County.

Last month, Tobler's son Eric hosted a charity event — Dentistry From the Heart — at the dental office with three dental assistants. And in May, Stonehaven Dental will host its second annual free dental-care day for those in need.

Last year, the Toblers and three other Stonehaven dentists cleaned, filled cavities and extracted teeth for 70 Utahns in need, according to Curtis Marshall, office spokesman. The event provided about $17,000 in free care.

"But I'm sure this year's will be a lot bigger," Marshall said, "because the economy being down and people not having as much to spend."

Last year, folks showed up at the dental office at 2:30 a.m. and camped in line to assure free dental services.

E-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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