A Trip to the Dentist with Johnny

I can still picture him at the orphanage where he was just one of over 100 kids. He was 2 years old, covered in dirt, wearing a tattered T-shirt too big for his body. He wasn’t wearing a diaper, his nose was running, and no one seemed to care. His mother had brought him and his older brother to live at that orphanage, believing anyone else could give them a better life. It wasn’t because she didn’t love them—she must have felt inadequate to mother them. And so I imagine as she left Johnny and Peterson there, she gave them each a kiss on the cheek and felt both pain and hope in her heart for their future.

Over six years have come and gone since then, and today those little boys are thriving. It is hard to believe Johnny turned 9 years old on April 10. He is healthy, he is happy, and he is loved. He excels in school, he loves to take selfies, and he gives some of the best hugs.

And recently, for the first time in his life, he visited the dentist.

It’s December 2013 and I have just moved to Haiti. I immediately notice Johnny’s permanent front tooth is severely chipped. I learn he was tripped at school, and didn’t have time to brace himself when he fell. Unfortunately, health care in Haiti is less than great and as my to-do list grows, fixing Johnny’s tooth falls lower on the list. He never complains about it and soon, it just becomes a part of him.

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A year and a few months pass, and I’ve not forgotten about Johnny’s tooth. It’s another typical morning in Haiti and I am commuting to the Lighthouse, but on this day I take a different route because I am going to visit Gervens’ school. As we are getting caught in traffic, I spot the word “Dentiste,” and request we stop. We park on the side of the road and walk up to the door. The architecture is old, but beautiful, like the gingerbread style homes built before Haiti was struck with extreme poverty.

We step inside and I am impressed. The office is air conditioned and clean. There is a small seating area to the right where a couple people wait. We approach the receptionist and ask what it would cost for a visit. We show her Johnny’s picture and she assures us it can be fixed at this office. She schedules us to return next week.

A week passes, and Johnny is now anxious and excited. He takes my hand as we walk toward the door. We step inside and the same receptionist hands me a short form to fill out with Johnny’s information.

Our appointment was scheduled for 9:00 am, but the hands on the clock slowly make their way around to 10:00. I can see on Johnny’s face he is growing tired, and I recount all the times I’ve waited in dentist and doctors offices. For him, this is the first time.

Finally, his name is called and we are led back to a room. Johnny looks at me confused and points to the chair where he is supposed to sit. He’s never seen anything like it.

“What is this?” he asks, and I can’t help but laugh. I tell him to sit.

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He becomes quite comfortable, taking his shoes off, sliding up and down the long chair. I tell Johnny to sit up as the dentist enters the room. She begins speaking to me in French. She quickly realizes I don’t speak French, and I explain to her in English how Johnny fell and chipped his tooth. I’m embarrassed to tell her how long it’s been since it happened.

She begins talking to Johnny, sweetly, so as to make him as comfortable as possible. Within fifteen minutes, his tooth looks like it’s never been chipped. Not only that, but the dentist, after learning Johnny lives at a children’s home with nine other kids, offers to come visit the Lighthouse and clean all of the kids teeth for free.

In the States, fixing a chipped tooth is an easy feat, but it seems nothing is quite so simple in Haiti, and for us, this was quite the victory. Johnny has a beautiful new smile to prove it.

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After falling in love with Haiti on her first visit in 2007, Lauren Neal served as director of the Lighthouse Children’s Home from 2013–2017. Lauren currently resides in Richmond, Virginia. Check out her photography at www.laurenneal.com.