Everyone smiles in the same language, and I have come to learn, over many years of traveling abroad and helping others, that serving others ultimately creates not just good feelings for those that are helped, but for yourself as well.
I have always been interested in helping others, and after I graduated from the University of Maryland dental school, it was less than a year of receiving my D.D.S. degree that I found myself on the border of Lebanon and Israel, volunteering my services in a communal living environment, called a Kibbutz. That trip initiated and helped create an excitement for travel, and I also realized how good it felt to have provided people with a service that made their lives better no matter how small it seemed to me. I was just filling or extracting teeth, but to them it was a huge relief. This trip also allowed me to visit and experience the great pyramids of Egypt, the bustling city of Cairo, the incredible history of Jerusalem, the beauty of scuba diving in the Red Sea, the magical Sea of Galilee, and the wonderful healing salts and buoyancy of the Dead Sea. I was hooked.
After practicing general dentistry for four years, I returned to school to obtain my specialty certificate in orthodontics from Columbia University in New York City. It was a tremendous learning experience and practicing orthodontics has become a real love of mine. I love going to work every day. Orthodontics is both an art and a science, and every day I have the wonderful opportunity to apply my experience and knowledge in creative ways to help others obtain the most beautiful smiles. It is a great challenge and great fun most of the time.
It was during this time, between the first and second year of my residency, that I took a trip to a country called Bhutan, a place that I had never heard of. I went there by myself, after numerous trips to the United Nations in New York to arrange what was then the first visit by a U.S. dentist to this tiny Himalayan Kingdom. It was an unforgettable experience: A nerve racking, goose bump flight into a landing strip between mountains at 10,000 feet on a little propeller plane. A step back in time, to a world unchanged for the past 600 years, a world of prayer flags and temples, incredible beauty and peace. This was before Bhutan had television, and it was so isolated that I remember being in a village with many young monks who had never seen a man with dark hair and blue eyes...they stared at me as if I was an alien... and to them, I was. Things have changed quite a bit in the last 20 years, (I have been back twice in 2005 and 2007), and the people are still as kind and peaceful as ever. After all, the motto for the government today is to have Gross National Happiness for its people.
This trip also opened my eyes to the world in a different way. In route to Bhutan, I was exposed to the extremes of wrenching human misery and poverty in Calcutta, India., and I did take the opportunity to visit Mother Teresas orphanage and charity center for the needy. I returned after a month overseas, with a very strong feeling. It became evident to me that even though the people of Bhutan had little money and very few material possessions, they seemed to be leading happier lives than we were in the United States. This was to be confirmed for me in almost every place I visited afterwards, and it always has stayed with me. Financial independence is wonderful, if you are able to use it in ways that not only help yourself but also enrich the lives of others.
A year later I was giving a lecture about MRI of the TMJ (magnetic resonance imaging of the temporo-mandibular joint) to the dental school in Nairobi, Kenya. I was then able to go on safari to the Masai Mara reserve, and then on to Rwanda for an exhilarating experience with the mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains.
After practicing a few years and establishing myself, I then collaborated with others and helped with what was then the Baltimore Chapter of Operation Smile. My first trip as an orthodontist found me in Naga City, Philippines. I was suddenly inundated with patients, making obturators (this is a retainer type of appliance that fits in the roof of the mouth and helps them speak, not get fluid through their nose, and sometimes composite teeth are placed on it so that for the very first time in their lives, they can smile and see teeth, not a gaping hole), for hundreds of children with cleft lip and palate. I was also busy taking out teeth, spending fourteen hour days working with a team of plastic surgeons, nurses, other volunteers, all in a common goal to change the lives of almost two hundred children in the span of two weeks. There were unforgettable tearful embraces with these kids and their parents. It was amazing to create essentially something that cost a few dollars but was invaluable to the patient and their family and friends.
I repeated this experience with Operation Smile next in Nicaragua, then Venezuela, and then to Shantou, China. It was in China that I met Je Ling, a fourteen year old boy who was missing his upper front six teeth, was unintelligible to anyone except his sister and parents, thus he remained isolated. I learned that a patient like Je Ling, given the choice, would rather have his speech improved than be given a nice smile. I never realized the pain that so many kids and adults feel because other people in the world assume you are stupid because you can not articulate properly. It wasnt just about the smile, it was about saving the emotional child in others, renewing the spirit within themselves. In the end, it was really about what this service does for yourself, how it makes you feel whole, how contribution to others is what fulfills your own self.
In 2000, I joined Health Volunteers Overseas, and was asked to go to Bangladesh to develop an orthodontic program for the Pioneer Dental School in Dhaka. I found there what I found most everywhere else, wonderful people who simply wanted and needed help. HVO is an organization that helps provide education to local doctors by sending volunteer doctors from the U.S. These dentists and dental specialists are willing to take their time to travel and teach other doctors and students, usually at the countrys dental school or hospital, so that they become self-sufficient. I was able to see this come to fruition after lecturing in Vietnam one year, as the dental school that had never had an orthodontic residency program was able to graduate its first student, after many years of HVO volunteers adopting a US program and delivering it to the school in Ho Chi Minh City.
After the tragedy of 911, we were unable to get volunteers to go to Bangladesh, and the program had to be discontinued. I always have wondered though, if my presence helped to change the ideas of those I was in contact with in Dhaka. I have always hoped that an invisible bridge of respect was built between myself and the students and doctors I interacted with, considering the differences in our religious and political beliefs.
Last November 2007, I traveled to Tanzania on a fact finding mission, and presently, I am the director of HVO for Cambodia. We have been sending volunteer doctors over to Cambodia for the past three and one-half years, to the dental school in Phnom Penh, and to a rural clinic. The program is going well, and again, it has put me in contact with some wonderful people far away, and given me the opportunity to see one of the great wonders of the world, the thousand year old temples at Anghor Wat.
I believe that as long as I am physically able to travel, my life will always include these efforts to help others. They are oftentimes long trips, sometimes they are uncomfortable, but recognizing the need in the world creates the desire to continue my efforts. Ultimately though, in trying to help even one other person in the world, you end up helping to save yourself. Its worth it.