Dr. Anne-Ashley Compton, a pediatric dentist, did Christmas right: she and two of her colleagues from the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) spent Dec. 23-29 in Bethlehem, performing dental surgeries—four or five a day—on children in Beit Jala Hospital.

“These were seriously ill children,” said Compton. “They were patients at Beit Jala because they have cancer, hemophilia, Down syndrome and other life-threatening diseases.”

For Compton, a Halifax County High School graduate who went on to undergraduate studies at North Carolina State in Raleigh, to dental school in Richmond, and finally to a residency in pediatric dentistry at  UIC, the opportunity to join a medical mission sponsored by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) turned out to be “like nothing I’d ever experienced before,” she said.

PCRF is a non-political, non-profit organization that provides medical and humanitarian aid to underprivileged children in the Middle East.

One of Compton’s professors at UIC, Dr. Sahar Alrayyes, also a pediatric dentist, provided the impetus for Compton’s volunteering. 

“Dr. Alrayyes has been working with PCRF for at least 10 years now,” said Compton, “and she does two missions a year…Bethlehem in December and Gaza in the spring.”

It was Compton’s first trip to the Middle East. The three-member team, which also included Dr. Haider Aljewari, a periodontist at UIC, flew into Aman, Jordan and immediately set out for Palestine, a 20-minute journey without checkpoints and a five-hour trek with the multiple checkpoints the team was forced to navigate. 

The trip began on Dec. 23.

“It took us the whole day to get from Aman to Palestine,” said Compton. “We handed over our passports to the officials at the first checkpoint, they took them, then disappeared and left us waiting for three hours.”

She added, “It definitely makes you appreciate living in the U.S. where you always have clean water, and life is so simple.”

Once they arrived at Beit Jala Hospital the next day, Compton and her colleagues went to work.

“Most of these children are at the hospital being treated for cancer, leukemia, Down syndrome—conditions which mean routine blood counts and which can make dental or oral surgery a complicated thing,” said Compton. 

“We started the first day by screening the children, who range in age from 3 to 13, and that included testing their blood count and making sure any surgeries we performed would not aggravate their other conditions.”

Compton explained, “While different types of doctors—heart surgeons, orthopedic specialists who make prosthetics—come to the region via PCRF, we all fly in for a short period of time and then leave. If, on the day of a scheduled surgery, a child’s blood count changes and precludes dental or other treatment, the child can be very disappointed. He or she will have to wait for months before another chance.  

“After we screened the children, 30 or 40 of them, who needed dental or oral surgery – teeth pulled, cavities filled, palate surgery—the pace was rigorous. On Christmas Day, we worked straight through. But all the hours and all the work was so satisfying…when we’d visit the children after they’d woken from the anesthesia, they’d be so grateful, smiling and happy with hugs for us.

 “I remember one little boy about 6 years old in particular,” said Compton. “Apparently, he’d had a tooth pulled on a previous occasion, and I guessed whoever did it didn’t numb him properly or put him to sleep, because at first, he wouldn’t even open his mouth, so we could look in. Then he started crying and repeating ‘Please don’t hurt me, please don’t.” 

She paused. 

“So finally, we were able to put him under and work on his teeth, and the next day when we went to visit him, there was this big smile on his face. He was so happy and appreciative.”

Compton, daughter of Dewey and Valerie Compton of South Boston, grew up in Halifax County and gradually moved further and further away from her beginnings—to North Carolina, Richmond, Chicago and now to a place most Americans can only see on their evening news. Definitely plans to go back to the Middle East.”

 “The people there, most of whom only speak Arabic, were so friendly to us, and they knew I was an American. They were warm, hospitable—tried to speak English to me and thanked us over and over for coming to help,” said Compton.  

Her last day in the operating room was Dec. 29, and Compton, exhausted, was hooked on helping and on making Christmas the kind of holiday it was always intended to be. 

 “There are still kids in the hospital in Bethlehem and in Gaza waiting patiently for someone to treat them,” continued Compton.

 “I hope I can go back and be one of those people,” she said. “You think, ‘I’ve done something that now allows a child to eat or put an end to his or her pain.’” 

Kathy Millar reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at kmillar@gazettevirginian.com.​