Kona resident Ann Marie Muramoto considers it a gift to practice dentistry. She regularly uses her knowledge and skills to positively impact people in her own community and across the globe.
Since the 1980s, Muramoto has gone on medical missions in developing countries, but avoided higher risk assignments while raising her children. She has also worked with the local mobile dental vans that provide dental services for the uninsured or underinsured. She spoke about the tireless work of the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii’s Office of Social Ministry and Big Island Oral Health Task Force, which has resulted in steady service and multiple clinics for the indigent.
Last Saturday, Muramoto returned from a weeklong medical mission trip to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where she volunteered her time with Helping Hands For Helen and Millennium Sistahs Inc., which seek to enhance life while promoting and providing health care services to people regardless of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background or disability.
Muramoto said this was the first time these charitable groups had taken a dentist, and the requirement of multiple original documents by the government at the last minute prohibited her from doing treatments. Another surprise occurred just prior to her April 27 departure, when she got an emergency phone call from organizers informing her of the travel risks and wanting to know if she was still committed to going. Not long ago, British tourists on a cruise were held at gunpoint during an armed robbery in St. Lucia, she said.
For Muramoto, the opportunity to make a difference was worth the risk. She also was grateful for having the support of her husband, who kept their private practice going.
While in St. Lucia, Muramoto was able to perform oral exams, and give oral hygiene instruction and fluoride treatments for approximately 250 patients, a handful of whom had no visible cavities. She also emphasized the importance of prevention and early detection while also providing guidance and additional resources when necessary. Patterson Dental, St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church and the Big Island Youth Day participants donated toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, mouth mirrors and fluoride toward the cause. Along with these items, Muramoto also distributed educational brochures from the West Hawaii Community Health Center.
“There are dentists on the island, which is 238 square miles and has a population of about 174,000, but there are not many affordable dental care options,” she said. “Fillings are not an option as they cost about $120 in East Caribbean dollars, and the people we talked to were earning about $6,000 to $7,000 American a year. Extractions cost a little less, and this is the treatment of choice. I saw three adults and three children with fillings.”
Traveling with her were visiting nurse practitioners who performed pap smears, as well as blood pressure and glucose screenings. The government also sent its nurses to watch the medical mission group and report back. The group visited local schools, orphanages and government health clinics. But the most unexpected place they provided services in was on the lanai of a rum shop, Muramoto said.
Muramoto described the recent medical mission as “very rewarding.” She said most of the people encountered were surprised to learn cavities are a preventable problem and they have the ability to control the decay by changing behaviors. She enjoyed empowering these people by “increasing their dental IQ” and motivating them to develop or maintain good oral hygiene habits. Her biggest joy was when a parent of child with a dental abscess returned to learn more about the care options and to thank her.
Every medical mission has left great satisfaction and an undeniable impression on Muramoto that she said last through the years. Each time, she feels recalibrated. So it may come as no surprise to some that next month in celebration of her 50th birthday, Muramoto will spend a week with a group, Somos Amigos, in a remote village in the Dominican Republic performing pediatric dentistry. The Millennium Sistahs have also invited her to go to St. Vincent in July to supervise two dental students from Ireland, Muramoto’s home country.
Still, Muramoto admitted it’s a blessing to return home to her own bed and bathroom. “Baby wipes are just not the same as a hot shower,” she added.