Dr. Manuel “Chip” Carin had been planning his bi-annual trip to South America as he usually does just shortly after the start of 2020.
The 57-year old Morgan Hill native was close to deciding where he wanted to go but those plans were quickly destroyed when the Covid-19 pandemic took off.
Carin, who has a dental office in Watsonville and is part of the Flying Doctors of America organization, said it’s a huge blow because the communities who rely on his medical assistance will now miss out on an event that can affect their health.
“There’s no greater human emotion than to give and receive compassion,” Carin said.
Carin has been on five trips and can confidently say he’s taken out 1,000 teeth during that course, including a record-high 53 in one day.
He’s seen instances of people walking more than four hours to get a couple of teeth pulled out, and as many as 2,000 people lined up for medical attention. Most of them are working poor people who don’t have access to healthcare.
“When you go to these places they have maybe but one doctor serving the whole community,” he said. “When they hear the American doctors are coming down we really do get treated like rock stars. It’s the closest I’ve ever been treated with so much love and respect by a community.”
Flying Doctors of America was founded by Allan Gathercoal in 1990 and the organization has flown on more than 300 missions to provide free medical care to over 285,000 children, women and men.
Carin said the groups are made up of about 16 people that have medical backgrounds and some are teachers as well as spouses of doctors. When he goes it’s usually two dentists and two dental assistants but he’s also had OBGYN, nurses, medical doctors and pediatricians come along.
Those who are not medical personnel work in the pharmacy to distribute antibiotics and medicines.
“It’s kind of a random sampling of just who’s available,” he said.
Among the areas served are Mexico, South America, Central America, Caribbean, India, Africa, South East Asia, China and Mongolia. The doctors can pick any place in the world to go but Carin’s group mostly focuses on going to South America.
The trip is not a smooth one by any means, however, as Carin can sometimes haul down 70 pounds of surgical instruments to remove teeth including forceps, suture material, anesthesia, bibs, cups and gauze. Luckily he gets to work with the local health authorities to occupy one of the clinics or take over schools and cafeterias.
Former Live Oak High biology teacher Rich Gautschi was more than willing to go on one of these exotic, yet meaningful trips when in 2017 Carin invited him to go to Peru .
Gautschi, who was Carin’s assistant coach on the football team from 1977-81, has gone twice to South America. His role of an assistant puts him in charge of cold sterilization and keeping the lines of hundreds of people moving along.
“I didn’t picture myself doing it and when he asked me, I answered instantly,” he said. “I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
All the doctors are limited to what they can do such as checking out rashes and suture cuts. But it’s much more difficult for the dentists to work because they don’t have X-rays, suction and rotary instruments.
“Based on our best guesses with what we’re seeing, we take out the teeth,” Carin said.
Searching for a new quest
At 50 years old, Carin was at a point in his life where he needed to add a new chapter in his book of adventures. He went to Moffett Federal Airfield to join the US Navy reserves.
He got medical clearance but his plan to be a dentist in the Navy went south. The problem was they couldn’t promise him that he wouldn’t be deployed.
He moved on, researched for an alternative and came across Flying Doctors of America.
“I was just looking for an adventure, a sense of purpose,” he said. “I knew there was a need to help humanity.”
His first trip was to the Amazon rainforest in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. He had to take a riverboat and hike into a village with all his equipment.
“It was scary, it was exciting and I felt like a five year-old kid going to Disneyland for the first time,” he said. “It was just fantastic and I was hooked.”
Gautschi, 69, and Carin recently went on a trip to the Colombia border near Venezuela, guided by armed military personnel.
According to the United Nations, there are 4.7 million Venezuelan migrants and other refugees in other Latin American countries after fleeing the economic collapse and political divide in their homeland. Colombia is home to more than a third of them.
“We use the word refugee a lot but not until you see a group of them you realize what refugees are,” Gautschi said. “But with the Venezuelan group, a lot of the people had money at one point and it was all taken away.”
Carin said he’s blessed to have a skill that he can take around the world that people deem necessary and appreciative. It’s hard for him to imagine how every single tooth he extracted was causing discomfort and pain.
His biggest fear was starting an extraction and leaving root tips behind, which means taking out a tooth and breaking it but you can’t get it out because he doesn’t have the required tools.
However, he’s studied with local surgeons to develop techniques where he could get out of a jam in case of an emergency. In return, he’s also been able to teach them a thing or two.
It’s moments like these that Carin misses the most. Gautschi is also extremely disappointed that they won’t be able to help again this year, but they’re already talking about their next trip that could possibly include a visit to Brazil in 2022.
“It’s a big bummer, but thankfully not so tragic because they do have the ability to take care of themselves,” Carin said. “We look forward to going back as soon as we can.”