Smiles in the Balkans

Winter 2020
Oneida Shushe distributing oral health kits
Photo by Rilind Beqa

In the rural Albanian village where Oneida Shushe ’19 was born, there wasn’t a single dentist. A trip to a dentist in the city was expensive, so people only went when someone was in a lot of pain. 

“Lack of access resulted in poor oral health for everyone, including me,” Shushe says. “I had a mouthful of cavities by age 9.” When her family won a visa lottery to move to the United States and settled in Albany, N.Y., Shushe, who was finishing up the third grade, noticed her new classmates had much healthier teeth and gums than the children from her home country. 

That realization launched her on a journey to become a dentist and serve those most in need of dental care — in America and in the Balkans. A recent trip took place this past summer, funded by Davis Projects for Peace. 

After graduating with a degree in molecular biology, Shushe spent seven weeks in the Republic of Kosovo presenting her Bigger Smiles Project on oral health to children and teenagers. She visited local schools, handing out 3,200 dental kits with toothbrushes, paste, floss, and a kids’ book on oral health, written in Albanian. Shushe also presented a poster on brushing, flossing, avoiding sugary foods, and visiting the dentist. Using models of teeth, she showed younger kids how to brush and floss. 

Kosovo is 90% ethnically Albanian, so Shushe could speak the language. She chose Kosovo because it’s a post-conflict country in need of oral health education, and she was eager to share knowledge among different ethnic groups, primarily Albanians and Serbs.

“It felt like my home country, which was important to me,” she says. “I want to know about the communities I go into so I’m not simply an outsider.” 

But preventing cavities in one of the poorest nations in Europe isn’t just a matter of handing out toothbrushes. At one preschool, a mother couldn’t make use of the pamphlets Shushe gave her because she didn’t know how to read; dental floss isn’t commonly sold in stores; and at some schools, the kids didn’t pack lunches, so they would run to the nearby supermarket to buy processed foods and sugary drinks. 

“I realized that communities often have other needs besides oral health, so the work I do in the future shouldn’t be isolated. I’d like to link oral health to education, sanitation, and other sectors.”

Her recent trip was the third time Shushe has returned to the Balkans to spread the word about healthy teeth and gums. In 2014 she traveled to her hometown of Orman, Albania, giving demonstrations and handing out pamphlets to 50 families, and in a 2017 Colgate-sponsored project, she brought 1,000 dental health packs for children and adults to six sites in Albania, while also conducting a study on barriers to oral health care service. 

Shushe is currently working at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, researching a diagnostic tool that promotes infection control in health care settings. She’s also waiting to hear where she’ll be accepted to dental school, which she plans to start in 2020.  

“Dentistry is very personal to me,” says Shushe. “I can’t imagine being in any other field. Wherever I go, I will find a way to contribute to oral health, and I’d like to integrate it into existing community structures, like the school curriculum.”

After dental school, she plans on practicing in a rural area similar to where she was born, or working in a community health center. “I hope to continue giving back to my communities in Albania and the Balkans, and to the United States, too,” she said. “I have big dreams about doing this, not just at the one-on-one level with patients, but also at a systemic level.”