I wouldn’t really say that I’m primarily a humanitarian, but, I will admit to being a dentist who’s trying to make dentistry a bit more humanitarian. I know some say I’m “that crazy dentist” who gave up a thriving private practice and a secure, comfortable lifestyle. But from my point of view, I’m still doing dentistry, it’s just an entirely different experience.
Firstly, working together with other wonderfully crazy people , like fellow Israeli/Australian ex-pats, Jacob Sztockman (Gabriel Project Mumbai) and Daniel Fidler (Project Ten), is both enjoyable and inspirational. The camaraderie of volunteers in humanitarian aid organizations, struggling in the face of disease, malnutrition, and substandard sanitation and hygiene, is quite different from the professional isolation of a solo dentist in a high-tech clinical bubble.
Then, there’s the whole different paradigm of job satisfaction. Previously, as a private practitioner, my focus was getting every single one of my patients’ oral disease processes under control, and restoring their mouths to optimal health. This was my tried and true path to professional satisfaction. These days, my work is about preventing as much oral disease as possible, by changing lifestyles, despite mostly uncontrollable conditions that vary greatly from one vulnerable community to the next. The challenges involved in oral health outreach require me to “dig deep” and creatively apply all the life skills I’ve managed to acquire over the years in addition to the relatively easy dentistry stuff. And when I do occasionally succeed in improving the lives of underprivileged people, the immense satisfaction is always bundled with the hard realization that it’s not enough. My effort is but a drop in the ocean of unmet needs.
My recent feasibility visit to a government-sponsored dwelling for the blind in Gondar, Ethiopia is a good example of what I’m talking about. Mud huts, no bathrooms, tough living conditions for people with life stories that are very difficult to hear. I joined a team of young adult volunteers from the Jewish Agency who help the blind Amhari children every day after school with their homework and other activities. I watched as the children’s faces lit up just from the fact that the volunteers care enough to hike all the way to spend time with them. They were very excited to meet a dentist for the first time and to hear that they will be getting their first ever toothbrush and toothpaste. (Omer, a volunteer, came up with the idea of writing the kids’ names in braille on the toothbrush handles). After the mood calmed, a child named Indark held my hand for a long silent moment, and then asked: “Doctor, can you treat eyes too?”. I could barely get the words out, “Indark, I’m sorry, I only know teeth.”