Filling Needs

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2015

Guatemalans aren’t the only ones who benefit from Stephen Humbert’s dedication to them. His students do, too.

By Lynette Lamb, Humbert photograph by RUDY GIRÓN

By 8 a.m. the line of patients stretches down the dusty street of the small Mayan village of San Rafael, Guatemala. The crowd of mostly women and children, wearing the typical colorful embroidered Mayan blouses called huipil, wait patiently—sitting, standing, leaning, holding babies—for the clinic to open. Chickens and dogs run by; in the distance are the foggy outlines of volcanoes.


Inside a one-story stucco building, three University of Minnesota dentists scurry to ready the tiny makeshift room that serves as their clinic. The instructor, Dr. Stephen Humbert (D.D.S. ’79), along with fourth-year students Erin Scherer and Gang Li, organize piles of toothbrushes, drill burs, floss, and dental tools onto one old plastic dental chair while hooking up a new portable dental unit—a one-piece suction, water, and power supply source.

This is Humbert’s 17th dental service trip—the fifth in 2014 alone. When he’s not in Guatemala or running his Hastings, Minnesota, clinic, Humbert teaches part-time at the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry. On most of his trips to Guatemala, which he does under the auspices of St. Paul-based nonprofit Common Hope, he takes along some of his fourth-year dental students. Founded nearly 30 years ago, Common Hope partners with impoverished Guatemalan children, families, and communities to provide opportunities in education, health care, and housing. The organization serves more than 11,000 children and adults in 26 communities through three main sites near Antigua and Guatemala City.

Many impoverished Guatemalans endure the agony of what are mostly rotten and infected teeth—ruined through a combination of poor diet, bad water, spotty dental hygiene, and a serious soda pop habit. The dire state of many Guatemalans’ dental health means extractions are common, even for kids. One 7-year-old girl, for instance, stoically sat through three extractions, with more likely to come, says Humbert. “We can’t take care of everything on the same day,” he says. “We determine the chief complaint and the top priority and take care of that. There can be some tough calls to make.”

sp2015_fillingneedssupportingDr. Stephen Humbert

Even 3- and 4-year-olds often arrive with terrible draining infections that require their teeth to be pulled, Humbert says. San Rafael clinic interpreter Karen Leier, a Canadian expat who has worked at the remote clinic for many years, is optimistic about the future, however. “I think it’s getting better,” she says. “Some of the teenage girls we’re seeing are taking better care of their teeth. One of the problems is that candies and colas are quick, cheap sources of energy. Milk is expensive here and the water is polluted.”

Students often say that the week they spend in Antigua and San Rafael, always turns out to be one of the most intense and instructive of their young lives. “I was not expecting their teeth to be so bombed out,” says Scherer, who hails from East Lansing, Michigan. “I was shocked it took them so long to ask for help. They must be in serious pain. It’s so different from the U.S. In the States, as soon as the pain starts, people show up.” Many Guatemalans walk for up to five miles and wait for as long as six hours to be treated.

A woman holding a tiny kitten in a box, which she feeds with a diminutive bottle of milk, is waiting in line at the San Rafael clinic. Next to her a little girl, her niece, smiles shyly. Across the room a young woman holds a baby, a toddler clinging to her long skirts.

It’s a scene that’s familiar to Humbert, a second-generation dentist who worked alongside his late father, Melvin Humbert (D.D.S. ’54), at their Hastings clinic. He now works there with his older daughter, Stephanie, a dental hygienist. Humbert has been a Common Hope volunteer for more than 20 years. He began his connection with the nonprofit by sponsoring a child, followed by a stint working in the organization’s St. Paul warehouse. Then came several trips to Antigua leading teams of volunteers in home and stove building. He led his first dental trip in 2008.

Humbert and a handful of other dentists, most of whom make annual trips, provide the only dental care the organization’s clients ever see. “We’re incredibly reliant on Steve,” says Rachel Stone, Common Hope’s medical volunteer director. “His work makes a huge difference in a short time. It has meant a lot to us and our families that he keeps coming down here.”

sp2015_fillingneedssupporting2Stephen Humbert, second from left, with students in Guatemala. Left to right: students Jamie William, Colleen McShane, Kirsten William Kennedy, Seth Huiras, Amber Kroke, and Nicholas Bussa

In her 18 months on staff, Stone has had occasion to watch Humbert on half a dozen visits. “He really sees the patients—their lives and hopes and fears,” she says. “Not all dental or medical team members do. He will take the harder route to avoid extractions, and that can really mean the world to the patients.”

Case in point: A few years ago, Humbert decided to draw the line at pulling front teeth, especially for young women, because of the unsightly consequences. Instead, he’ll spend an hour and a half doing a root canal, or take impressions to have a fixed partial denture fabricated, which he will then bring along on his next trip.

At the Antigua clinic, inside Common Hope’s airy Familias de Esperanza center, another long line of patients wait. Christian, a small 9-year-old boy wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and blue jeans, is teary-eyed. “He’s really scared,” says Humbert. “I’m going to have him come in and watch his mom get worked on so he can get familiar with it.”

“Dr. Humbert is great at communicating with patients,” says Seth Huiras, a student who traveled with him last summer. A bag of small giveaway toys helps relax the kids, says Humbert, but just as effective are his gentle manner, warm smile, and his way of kneeling down to their level, thus reducing the intimidation factor of his six-foot frame. Humbert is equally gentle and effective with his students, they say. “He’s helpful, encouraging, and supportive,” says previous student participant Nick Bussa. “But the best thing about working with Steve is the level of trust he puts in us as student clinicians. He really fosters confidence in us.”

Back in Antigua, that confidence is clear. Scherer and Li assess their patients’ needs, then briefly consult with Humbert before proceeding on their own to clean, fill, or extract teeth. Occasionally he pops over to make a suggestion: “With that one you can just take a forceps and tug. Okay, now hold it down and keep holding it.” Mostly, though, he just strolls around refilling equipment, holding suction tubes, and chatting with patients.

He also takes a lot of x-rays using the compact portable unit he bought for Common Hope several years ago after being continually frustrated by the lack of a working x-ray machine. “Trust me, you don’t want to know how much it cost,” he says, laughing. That’s not the only equipment he has paid for for over the years, say his students. “I couldn’t believe the amount of equipment Dr. Humbert has purchased, donated, and taken down there,” says Bussa.

Both dental chairs in the Antigua clinic are full, the drills and water and suction whirring away, when suddenly Scherer calls out, “I’ve got no air or high speed here! What’s going on?” Humbert, ever relaxed, walks over and takes a look. “It might have overheated,” he says, fiddling with the controls.

Humbert isn’t easily rattled. “Steve works like we do,” says Stone, referring to Common Hope’s permanent staff. “Some volunteers get upset at the smallest things, but he rolls with the punches. If he runs out of water or can’t find a piece of equipment, he doesn’t let it get to him. He works hard and lets the small stuff go. He sees the big picture.” Humbert’s attitude must be catching because the students, too, adjust easily to setbacks and unusual conditions, steadily working their way through the long line of patients. “They’re young and motivated and want to help,” says Humbert. “They jump right in and do what needs to be done.”

The learning curve is steep in Guatemala, he says, in part because each student sees eight to ten patients a day—four times the number they’d treat back home at the U dental clinic. But sheer numbers aren’t the only reason this week in Guatemala provides such an intense education for students. Humbert’s hands-off attitude also helps. “I’m there as a resource only,” he says. “They make the decisions, draw up the diagnosis and treatment plan, and carry it out. As fourth-year students, they’re ready to make those decisions—and in a few months, when they graduate, they’ll have to anyway.”

One additional result of those transformative days in Guatemala: Humbert’s students are very likely to come back and help again. Bussa spoke for many of his fellow students when he said, “Most dental students never get the opportunity to have such a valuable international clinical experience. This trip opened my eyes, and I came home hoping to return soon.”

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer and editor.


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