Helping the children of Chernobyl

Galway dentist Cíara Houlihan travelled to Belarus recently with humanitarian aid agency Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International. Here, she describes her experience

As a dentist, Cíara Houlihan had never experienced gratitude and affection like she did in her week volunteering in a children’s mental asylum in Belarus.

Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum is an orphanage for 173 children suffering from both physical and mental disabilities that range from mild to very severe.

She said: “Sinéad O’Brien [a dentist from Dublin] and I travelled to Vesnova, which is situated in a rural area at the end of a road. This is symbolic because most of the children will stay here or be moved to an adult mental asylum until the end of their lives.

“Working in Vesnova was a highly rewarding experience. There are over 170 children in the orphanage all looking for our affection. Their eyes would light up when we gave them stickers and a toothbrush at the end of their treatment. Some children tried to return every day. They would run up and hug you as you walked down the corridor, shouting our praises.

“Patients frequently reported pain and swelling and we did everything we could to help them in the limited time we had. This mainly consisted of scaling, restorations and extractions. Unfortunately, the patients who were severely disabled could not communicate their needs, but we worked hard to ease their pain and did our best to treat those who were able for it.

“The response from these children was staggering. It made me value my profession in a new way – the universal skills and ability to help ease the discomfort of others made me proud to be a dentist.”

Breaking the chain of infection

Cíara travelled to Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum as part of Chernobyl Children International’s Dental Programme, which was set up in 2006 by dentist Marcas Mac Domhnaill and dental nurse Mary Sugrue after seeing the poor levels of oral care and maintenance in the region. Chernobyl Children International continues to develop the programme and the dental team focuses on raising the standard of oral hygiene to ensure the children are not in pain.

Mary Sugrue said: “I have been going to the region for the last 17 years. I remember seeing the local dentist extract a child’s tooth without using anaesthetic and that experience stayed with me.

“On each dental mission to Vesnova, we examine every one of the 173 children. Our main aim is on preventative maintenance as much as possible in an effort to break the chain of infection. That’s a massive priority for us. Scalings, cleanings and polishings are essential and we try at all times to get them out of pain. Gingivitis is quite prevalent and a massive priority for us is educating the carers and the children on the correct brushing techniques.”

Dentist Marcas Mac Domhnaill said that it was a privilege once again to work in the dental clinic at Vesnova Children’s Mental Asylum during his latest visit this Easter.

He said: “While much has been done, there is much still needed. I would encourage any dentist to offer their time and skill to help these children. You certainly receive much more from these children than you can give.”

About the charity

In almost 30 years, Chernobyl Children International has delivered nearly €100 million in medical and humanitarian aid to the Chernobyl regions of Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia and almost 25,000 children have been flown to Ireland for rest and recuperation holidays. Since 2001, volunteers and donors from Ireland have invested more than €1.5 million in upgrading the building of Vesnova, which has received Excellence Awards in Belarus for delivering high-quality medical care.

For more information about the charity, visit

Published: 17 August, 2015 at 10:53
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