Dentistry is powerful. Being a dentist is a form of art that allows you to turn your patient’s life around 180 degrees. First impressions matter – you know that and that may be one of the reasons why you decided to become a smile creator. It is said that an unattractive smile can destroy a person’s chances for success, but you as a dentist have the power to change that. Technology is developing faster than ever before, your access to the most recent knowledge is easier than even a few years ago, the tools you are operating are enabling procedures your predecessors couldn’t even imagine.
You can do miracles. Your patient is in pain – you perform root canal treatment in just two painless appointments. Your patient has periodontitis – you take your brand-new ultrasonic device, perform SRP and plan further microsurgery. Your patient lost his tooth due to deep caries complication – you order CBCT examination and plan implant-based protheses. You can really do miracles… as long as your patient has the money. How would you help him if he wasn’t fortunate enough to live a prosperous life in a developed country? How would you follow your dental mission if there was no technology around? Why, having the best possible resources in the history of dentistry, are we constantly losing a battle with such a simple disease as caries?
Those questions were troubling me for some time and I honestly couldn’t find a better solution than simply going out and doing something by myself. I chose Africa, or should I say Africa chose me?
Talking about most of the society – let me generalise and omit, on purpose, those affected by various genetic conditions – it seems obvious to me that most of our problems lie in laziness and negligence, and that most of us simply got what we had deserved. Let’s say it out loud: someone living in a developed country with access to medical service, libraries, internet .. and he still has caries? Well, maybe she’s one of those poor ones who simply „has very bad teeth”, „got all of her teeth decayed during pregnancy”, „doesn’t have the time for a checkup”… I am not talking about someone with cancer, about someone living on the streets, about a single mom who was abused – I am talking about you and me, about someone who is healthy enough, rich enough and safe enough to read this somewhere on the internet.
We are the lucky ones. We are the ones who have enough knowledge and resources to prevent this silent epidemic completely – but yet, we don’t. I was frustrated. I have always believed that the simplest solutions are the best ones. I do not want to find the perfect cure, when the oath tells me „I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure”.
And hence, I left my fancy academic clinic and my patients who, in my opinion, had it all but didn’t care, and went to do what I felt was the right thing – to prevent.
I wanted to go somewhere, where my actions would matter, even though I knew that translating advocacy to effective actions, was a challenge.
Africa, a word so well-known but yet, so distant. If you want to help a society that hasn’t been affected by negligence, choose a remote one, I thought. Few days later I saw the Humble Smile Foundation project, I applied and I got chosen as one of the lucky seven. Few weeks later I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, not even imagining how much this African journey would affect my life.
For me, as a travel passionate, having the opportunity to give back to developing communities, while engaging in cross-cultural experience was an invaluable lesson. And there were plenty of lessons – as there are everywhere, if you actively search for them.
I haven’t been to Africa before, all I knew were misty assumptions based on westerners’ opinions. Opinions of the same people who brought Coca-Cola to African villages, but forgot to bring the toothbrush alongside. The people who brought thousands of plastic items for them to buy, but forgot that there are not enough jobs to earn. The people who brought tons of foods with added-sugar, but forgot that there are not enough doctors to take care of its consequences. Hence – I knew nothing and I needed to be humble, because only being humble I could have a greater understanding of where I was.
There was the moment when I was kind of imagining the project as snuggly cuddles with adorable shiny skinned kids. The reality muffled my fantasies at the very beginning. Helping in South Africa is mostly about transforming the beauty of easy ideas to effective policies. The volunteers have the knowledge, managers have the connections and foundation has the means. It’s simple, right? We begin with diagnosing the issue accurately, we assess the potential resources, we advise on the changes needed. We know our job – and yet, it’s not so simple. But does it mean that we shouldn’t try?
Volunteering teaches you patience, creativity, it allows you to apply your skills in a real working field. And yes, it’s frustrating and challenging – but the way you deal with the troubles in a completely foreign environment, shows how solution oriented and self-aware you are and those are the qualities you won’t test so easily sitting in your comfy high-end office . In a way, the experience can open your eyes to what is really important and how your small action can give someone an everlasting smile. You learn and remember once again to value the things you have and take nothing for granted.
Understanding and seeing with your own eyes that there are people in the world, who don’t have the necessities essential for daily living but still want to make a change in their lives, should definitely influence your perspective and help you to live more gratefully.
I believe that the experience you’re having, often extends beyond visible contribution. You get to know like-minded people, you gain more understanding of where your professional passion lies, you share the differences you have with your team and you learn from them.
I finally got to know how prevention should look like and what does it really mean to advocate the change in one’s habits. I was doing what I believed dentistry is for – I was preventing disease – for prevention is preferable to cure. We gave the group of amazing, willing-to-learn people the joy of being a change in their society. We didn’t overlook the local non-dental connected adults and we delivered them knowledge and resources to take care of their kids’ oral health. I really hope that laziness and negligence won’t come here and that the people we encountered will always live healthy lives with healthy smiles. That’s how powerful dentistry is – and so are you. Use it wisely.