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Dental Mission/Palestine – Interview with Dr. Renna Hazboun

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

PCRF self 2
Dr. Renna Hazboun

Dr. Renna Hazboun is an Arab American dentist and oral surgeon whose roots through her parents can be traced to Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine. Dr. Hazboun is currently in the VA West Los Angeles Hospital starting an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Research Fellowship.

Dr. Hazboun was educated in the United States and has always been passionate about helping others. She considers that her roots are “embedded in Palestine”, and holds “Palestinian volunteer work with a special regard.” While in High School and college in Pennsylvania she participated in Dabkeh groups. “I wanted to show others  the beauty that I saw in the Palestinian culture”. While in college in Penn State University she was president of the Arab Student Union.

To unite her passion for helping others with her love of Palestine Dr. Hazboun has made two trips to Palestine with dental medical missions and now shares with the readers of The Muslim Observer the details of her experience. These missions were made under the auspices of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), the world’s largest children’s charity. Familiar to our readers, the PCRF has as one of its primary activities the formation of medical missions then sent abroad to treat in their homeland young patients in need of medical or dental care.
While in Dental School Dr. Hazboun sought out and found through the PCRF a humanitarian mission to Palestine. Indeed her post-graduate training was specifically geared to acquire the qualifications that would permit her to become more involved with the PCRF dental missions.

PCRF group photo
PCRF group photo

Dr. Hazboun wishes to point out that these dental missions are focused on special needs children who suffer from acquired or congenital disorders. This can include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and seizure disorders. These special needs children cannot tolerate a traditional dental office visit.The PCRF dental mission was originally formed to work with cleft palates and cleft lips.The team works in conjunction with the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery team to provide pre surgical and post surgical dental needs.

Commonly some 20 to 20 children are chosen from a field of 50 to 100.

Dr. Hazboun has offered an interview to The Muslim Observer: Herewith her story.

The Muslim Observer: Was your medical mission your first trip to the Occupied Territories ?

Dr. Hazboun: I grew up visiting Palestine since I can remember. My family has visited at least once every 1 – 2 years.

In 2009, my first medical mission to Palestine was as a third year dental student, also with PCRF. It has been 4 years, but I have finally managed to go for my second trip with the same team — this past June 2013. However, this time, I am a licensed dentist and have had three years of hospital experience. It was amazing to finally make it back for this purpose and be able to use what I’ve learned to help the Palestinians.

TMO:  Do you have family in the Occupied Territories ?

Dr. Hazboun: I do.

My family name – Hazboun – is actually the largest family in Bethlehem, consisting of 8 branches. I am sure I have more relatives than I can count.

However, it is my maternal grandmother, 2 uncles, 1 aunt, and multiple cousins who I am closest too. My aunt is also a dentist and has a clinic in one of the town centers of Bethlehem. Her son, my cousin, and his wife, who also happen to be dentists, and are working at the same clinic. I enjoy working with them when I visit my family.

TMO:  How did you first become interested in the PCRF? I believe you were active in the Philadelphia area PCRF.

Dr. Hazboun: The Philadelphia PCRF is a new chapter that has only recently started in the past few months. I wish I was there to help the chapter at its beginning stages, but I have been living in LA for the past 3 years. My mother is a board member and I am sure she is doing a much better job than I ever could! I am happy to join the Southern California chapter.

I learned about PCRF from my first dental mission in 2009 when I joined Dr. Sahar Al-Rayyes and Dr. Bilal Saib. I knew that PCRF had a medical mission component but was unaware of the dental missions. During dental school I was seeking out non-profit mission organization that visits Palestine or the Middle East. It was a friend who recommended I e-mail the founder, Steve Sosebee, in regards to dental missions. Steve connected me to the right people and I’ve been onboard ever since!

TMO:  What was your impression of Tulkarim?

Dr. Hazboun: Tulkarem is a typical West Bank town, perhaps a little smaller than other ones I have visited. The town has the same classic charm of old Palestine that has been kept in the unnamed roads with beautiful stone-work and architecture. It is close to a larger town of Nablus, where you find more market-places and restaurants. Tulkarem is a little quieter. I have always felt welcome and enjoy visiting.

TMO:  How would you grade the medical facilities that you had to work with during your mission?

Dr. Hazboun: The government owns the medical facilities that we worked in. They are very clean, as expected, and are fully functional – to a certain extent. I would say it operates as a Level 2 or 3 medical facility by the American system. They do not perform ground-breaking surgeries or see hundreds of trauma patients. However, they do see the local population for basic surgeries (appendectomies, amputations, C-sections) and they have an emergency room. They have all the necessary medical and anesthesia equipment and facilities, but perhaps it isn’t the latest and greatest – more like it’s from the 1990s or older – but it all works!

The medical staff is very well trained and everyone – doctors, nurses and support staff – were EXTREMELY friendly and helpful. We were grateful they allowed us to use their space and they seemed happy to have PCRF there. We felt very welcome.

TMO:  Please tell us something about your fellow members in the dental mission.

Dr. Hazboun:  Dr. Bilal Saib was the “BOSS”, if we had to name one. This will be his 12th mission with PCRF. He was a big driving force along with Dr. Al-Rayyes, in starting this dental mission program to Tulkarem. He is a general dentist in a private practice in North Carolina. He also had training for 2 years in Hospital Dentistry after dental school. He has been a great mentor for me and was the one who guided me towards, and through, my post-graduate training. It is an honor to work with him.

Dr. Munther Salem is a recent dental graduate from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has been on the trip once before as well. It is always great to work with new graduates. We can appreciate each other’s background and passion. We had a similar experience growing up in America but our roots being in Palestine. I hope to work with him again in the future.

Dr. Sajida Hattab is also a recent dental graduate.  She graduated from Birzeit University in the West Bank. She has been a part of the group for about 4 times, and she was a very important part of this dental mission. We are VERY interested in working with the local doctors and dentists to share our knowledge, as well as, to better understand the local population. PCRF will have a very positive impact in the Palestinian society if we can help the local medical staff learn these specialties, such as hospital dentistry. They can continue to serve the local population, even when PCRF cannot be there.

TMO:   Were you able to also function in a teaching capacity to the dental personnel you met in Tulkarim?

Dr. Hazboun:  The teaching component has become very important to the PCRF dental mission. Now, that PCRF has been there so many times, it has established its presence among the medical staff. Most of the teaching is done “hands on” in the hospital operating room.  In the future, we would like to include educational sessions or lectures into our trips and involve more local dentists and doctors in our surgeries.

TMO:   Were there dental problems that tended to appear often in the children of Tulkarim?

Dr. Hazboun:  The biggest problem I noticed is something we call “Baby Bottle Caries”. It is a pattern of rampant decay of all the baby teeth typically seen in children who are put to sleep with a “baby bottle” full of milk. Milk, containing a form of sugar, will “sit and simmer” on the teeth all night causing decay of the back and front teeth in a specific pattern. It will also have an increased prevalence in populations without fluoridated water. Fluoridated water will help strengthen the outer layer of the teeth, preventing this process from starting to some extent, but not completely. In severe cases, it usually requires extraction of all erupted teeth and sometimes permanent teeth can be a part of the problem too. Leaving the infected teeth in there can cause local infection which can cause problem for the erupting permanent teeth but can also lead to very extensive systemic infections. Untreated systemic infections are rare but can lead very detrimental outcomes for a patient, especially a child.

Another component of the education we are trying to work on, is educating the public. The United States has gone to great lengths to develop its public health systems to teach Americans about the importance of oral hygiene, in addition to other things. We would like to see similar programs in effect with the Palestinian Ministry of Health that teaches the public about the importance of dental treatment and oral hygiene.

TMO:  Did you work with NGOs in Tulkarim?

Dr. Hazboun:  We worked with hospital staff and PCRF representative in Tulkarem.  PCRF have an established system for these missions – we follow the process to accomplish the goal of the mission.
TMO:  Did you experience any harassment from the Israelis during your stay, e.g. checkpoints, roadblocks?

Dr. Hazboun:  Since I visit frequently, I experience travel difficulties. It usually occurs every time I enter or leave. I am held at the airport for extended periods of time (typically 3 – 6 hours). They do extensive security checks, ask me many detailed questions, repeatedly, and check through my luggage. My best advice for anyone experiencing the same “delays”, is to remain calm and let the Israeli’s do whatever security searches they need. If you have not done anything wrong, there should be nothing to fear. Also, expect it every time you enter or exit and do not ever let this discourage you from returning.


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