Joanna Hartman
Sierra Sun

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May 4, 2007
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The Flying Doctors: Los Medicos Voladores

Fernando squeezes his deep-set brown eyes tightly shut as the dentist twists and turns the pliers, working carefully but forcefully inside his mouth. The molar finally pops out and Fernando opens his eyes beaming at the stubborn tooth that had been causing him so much pain and discomfort.

"Muchas gracias, muchas gracias," he says, shaking hands vigorously with the dentist and his assistant, eyes aglow with gratitude. His face is weathered, each wrinkle telling a story of hard labor under the Mexican desert sun. Fernando now has just six or so teeth left, but flashes a gummy smile after Dr. Ricardo Guillen, a Sacramento dentist, finishes pulling out three rotten molars.

Guillen volunteers with Los Medicos Voladores, a California-based nonprofit organization providing health care and education in rural villages throughout Mexico and Central America. Called the Flying Doctors in English, the group relies on volunteer pilots to transport teams of medical professionals and other volunteers on monthly trips to rural medical, dental and optometry clinics treating more than 7,000 people each year.

"All I do is fly an airplane," says Bob Horvath, a Truckee resident and 15-year volunteer pilot with Flying Doctors.

Sporting his trademark shorts, tanned skin and white hair, Horvath is humble about his 15-year stint with the organization. Before he and others established the High Sierra chapter of Flying Doctors, he served as the board president of the Gold Country chapter. Since then, he has left big shoes to fill as trip coordinator and the organization's chief pilot.

His plane and extensive flying background make the trips possible, but once he's on the ground Horvath serves as resident electrician, public greeter, tool sanitizer and all-around handyman.

"Then you get down here and you get to look back at the love in these people's eyes when they receive whatever it is you've brought them," Horvath says.

It is the pilots who make these trips possible, Guillen agrees, and Horvath does more than just fly planes. He and Guillen have worked together on missions to Mexico since 1993, establishing the clinic in San Ignacio in 1998, where they returned in April to provide dental care.

San Ignacio is a seasonal tourist town in the center of Baja California Sur, a jumping-off point for whale-watching tourists and a hub for easygoing spring-breakers and motorists cruising Mexico's Federal Highway 1.

The village can be bustling during peak season, but quiets once the tourists leave. Because San Ignacio doesn't have a large employment base, many residents conduct a majority of their business in just a few months, and then are forced to live modestly the rest of the year.

"If you have very little money you only buy tortillas and eggs. And you have to buy your water. That's it," says American ex-patriot and San Ignacio resident Juanita Ames "You don't buy other things and certainly not dental care."

The desert surrounding San Ignacio is dry and desolate, but the village is located within an oasis of palm trees at the base of a cactus-covered mesa. The 4,000 or so residents have access to Mexican doctors at a cost, but must travel hours by car to reach a dentist or optometrist.

"We try to save as many teeth as we can," says Dr. Larry Guittard, a volunteer dentist from Atascadero, Calif. "Because they don't see dentists for regular care, we'll take the ones out that are hopeless."

Guillen and Guittard serve about 40 patients during the two-day clinic, mostly filling cavities but also pulling decayed teeth.

"They're very grateful," Guillen says. "They're religious people, you know, so they say 'thank you very much,' and say, 'bless you.'"

Three other men accompany Fernando to the clinic, each of their faces equally weathered. They wait patiently for their turn, and the extraction that will relieve their toothaches.

The clinic is spotless and sterile, even by American standards. The shrill whine of the dental drills doesn't evoke the same level of unease here as it would in an American clinic. These patients wait calmly, playing quietly with their children or making intermittent conversation with their neighbor. Their faces are relaxed and they smile when making eye contact.

"You don't know what it is to have you here," Ames thanks the dentists, pilots and volunteers. "I hope they'll all take advantage of it."

In Spanish Guillen explains to patients stretched out in folding lawn chairs about the Novocaine shot, the impending numbing sensation, his drilling tools and post-filling care. Guillen and Guittard hunch over the patients, twisting their bodies in the cramped room to operate in the makeshift dental office.

"It makes me realize how good the care really is in our country and how accessible it is," Guittard says of his involvement with the organization.

Though the people of San Ignacio have been described in some travel books as lazy, Ames says the better word is "tranquil." Many of the residents are retired and others return to their family homes during periods of unemployment. Because job opportunities are scarce, locals pass their time socializing with friends and relatives outside the town's few restaurants or in San Ignacio's central plaza.

Ames says she has always loved Baja and left her Northern California home when she bought an adobe guesthouse, Casa Leree, four years ago. She has since recorded the history of San Ignacio, spending her days chatting with the locals and digging up old photos. She speaks slowly and deliberately and describes the town and its people with great love.

"They've lived their lives," she explains. "They've had to be self-sufficient " they just manage their lives very well."

Ames says the people are also very patient, which explains why some spend an entire morning waiting to be seen by a dentist without complaint. Because the locals have such limited access to dental care, many arrive early the first morning to place their name on a waiting list and better their odds of getting treated.

The village is quieter than during past clinics, Horvath and Guillen agree, and the dentists are able to treat each waiting patient.

Because Flying Doctors, specifically Horvath and Guillen, has formed a relationship with San Ignacio, locals can expect to see more of the volunteers in and around their village. Both women's health and optometry clinics are planned for the near future.

"This trip was very productive, very successful. It was productive in that we finished the line that was there " that never happens. We usually have to turn them away," Guillen says.

All seven volunteers at the San Ignacio clinic say they plan on making more trips with the organization, even if it means closing a dental practice, leaving their families to fend for themselves or using vacation time from work. The pilots, physicians and other volunteers are dedicated to bringing health care and health education to rural Mexican villages.

"You end up taking away more from these trips than you give. And certainly we all give a lot, especially the doctors," Horvath says. "But the gratitude that you observe in people's eyes " little kids who are in pain, the old lady who gets glasses for the first time " they just look at you bewildered and you can't duplicate that anywhere."


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated May 4, 2007 12:35PM Published May 4, 2007 12:05PM Copyright 2007 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.