WESTFIELD, NJ — At her practice in Westfield, dentist Ella Shuster’s main focus is prevention. But on a recent humanitarian trip to to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, she got a very different perspective on dentistry. Shuster, who grew up in Westfield, spent a week in January treating people who do not have access to regular dental care.

“One of the patients I saw was a young girl with very broken down teeth,” said Shuster. “She was in her late twenties and had never been to a dentist. I had gone over the treatment plan with her, as many of the teeth had to be removed due to extensive decay.

“She was so afraid of having a denture like her mother that she just never went to the dentist,” Shuster continued. “Once I explained in Spanish that I was going to extract the teeth and immediately place implants she broke out in tears. I was so concerned. Did I say something wrong? She told me that I was like an angel and she couldn't have imagined anything like this could be happening to her. After we completed the surgery she started crying again and thanked me for coming and gave me a big hug.”

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Shuster first thought about volunteering her time when her best friend worked for Doctors without Borders and shared with her how rewarding the trip was for her personally and professionally. Shuster wanted to have the same experience as a dentist. 

“We are so fortunate in this area of the world to have the level of healthcare and dental care that we have,” said Shuster, who was the only female dentist on the trip. “I wanted to do what I can for others in the developing world. I started researching and found this trip and decided to go.”

During the week, Shuster said she saw between 300 and 400 patients a day.

“I saw patients as young as their twenties that had such bad oral health that may cause life-threatening conditions,” she said. 

To help the dentists with all of these procedures, the group also included dental students and assistants who supported the treatments. Among the work that the team of dentists routinely performed during the trip were implants, bone augmentations and sinus lifts, in addition to many surgeries to remove infections.

“It was the most rewarding experience that I have ever had,” Shuster said. “The people were so gracious. They were so appreciative of what we were able to do for them. I plan on going back and volunteering again, whether it is at the same location/country or a different developing country that has limited access to dental care.”

Shuster’s office is located at 516 North Avenue East in Westfield.

A frequent contributor to TAP into Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports (a sports program for children of all abilities) and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net.