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Regan Coxon calls the three weeks she spent in Kenya this summer shadowing dentists, dental students and facial surgeons a “life-changing experience” that inspired new career goals.

“It opened my eyes to how I’m going to approach health care,” shared Coxon, an aspiring dentist and biology major at Dominican University. “And it made me realize I want to continue doing this. After dental school I want to work with Red Cross or another organization and travel the world, helping people with their teeth and teaching them about oral hygiene.”

A rising senior at Dominican and a member of the women's soccer team, Coxon traveled in June to Mombasa, a coastal city of 1.2 million people in southeastern Kenya, for an internship with International Medical Aid, an organization providing medical internships abroad. A 2022 Excellence in Experiential Learning (ExcEL) Scholar Award from Dominican University helped cover Coxon’s travel costs.

Assigned to Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital in Mombasa, Coxon observed the day-to-day patient care in the government hospital’s dental unit by shadowing dentists and surgeons. A majority of the procedures performed involved the removal of teeth.

“I saw a lot of extractions because that’s what people can afford,” Coxon said, explaining that having a tooth pulled might cost the equivalent of $3 to $4 USD, while a tooth-saving root canal can cost four times as much.

While both procedures appear to be low-cost by American standards, they are expensive for many impoverished Kenyans, who only visit a dentist when their tooth pain becomes too much to bear, Coxon noted.

Root canals and tooth extractions — even wisdom teeth removal — are performed using only local anesthetic, she said.

“A lot of the time you can see the patients are in pain because they can still feel (the procedure),” Coxon observed.

Routine dental cleanings, aimed at preventing tooth decay and loss, are uncommon, she said.

What wasn’t unusual, though, was malnourishment, which Coxon said she saw frequently in the faces and bodies of the dental unit patients. Malnourishment was identified as the cause of one man’s jaw problems, which landed him in the hospital for three weeks and led to consultations with a facial surgeon, she said.

Medical equipment and resources were often in limited supply as well, requiring the doctors to balance need with availability, Coxon said.

“The doctors are amazing with the resources they have,” she noted. “They made sure the patient was getting the care they needed with what little resources they had and it was amazing to see. In the U.S., you don’t think about equipment because you have it all the time, but there, they have to think about when to use an instrument because another patient may need it more.”

Biology courses taken at Dominican University aided Coxon in her understanding some of the terminology used during daily briefings with the hospital’s facial surgeon, she believes. Meeting a diverse community of students at Dominican was also helpful in widening Coxon’s world view prior to her departure for Kenya.

“When I came to Chicago (from Michigan) a couple years ago, it changed my view of the world and my understanding of others, which helped me a lot when I went to Kenya,” she said. “People are the same, but you have to be more understanding of the circumstances they are in.”

Outside the hospital, Coxon joined other interns from International Medical Aid to teach schoolchildren about hygiene and dental care, particularly how to properly brush their teeth. The children received free toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Coxon also visited a school to talk to female students between the ages of 14 and 20 about menstrual health.

“It was rewarding to see people smile when given knowledge about hygiene,” Coxon said. “It was very rewarding doing this work and seeing how people reacted to it, how they were grateful for it.”

Back at home in Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids, Coxon is continuing to learn about dentistry through a summer internship with her family dentist there.