Dear Brother Albright,
After a long week of work at my dental office in Modesto, California, it was time to pack for a whirlwind trip of unknown adventures to Uganda, Africa. With a bag full of dental tools and supplies in tow, I climbed aboard a plane which would launch us through 11 time zones in the next 30 hours into the heart of Africa to the country of Uganda (bordered by Kenya on the east and the Congo on the west). Uganda’s short life expectancy, lack of access to clean water and rate of respiratory illness, place it among the world’s most unhealthy nations.
The first sign of encouragement was in Brussels, Belgium, where two young Dental Hygienists, Katie Cottrell and Alisha Cleaver, both from Utah (with their perfect smiles) made a grand entrance just minutes before the next flight left for East Africa. Katie and Alisha were amazing and inspiring because of their love and passion for serving others. We were fortunate to have these two volunteers join our humanitarian dental team. They are both recent graduates from the Utah College of Dental Hygiene. They left from Salt Lake City and connected with us in Brussels.
We all arrived in Uganda a bit jet lagged at about 2 a.m. Sunday morning where the mission president placed us in some LDS mission apartments. Luckily church wasn’t until 10 a.m., which gave us time to catch a couple a short naps. It has always amazed me how you can go halfway around the world and never miss a beat in the spiritual rewards of church attendance. From the Sacrament meeting to the lessons taught in Sunday school, it could have been any awesome ward back home in America. This was the incredible Klololo ward, which was even fun to say, and was one of the friendliest wards I have ever visited.
Now this was no back room extraction clinic trip where you count the number of teeth you can remove in a day! We were invited to practice our dentistry skills in one of the most modern dental schools in East Africa and maybe anywhere in Africa. The Mulago Dental School in Kampala, Uganda, was a direct result of donations made by many groups, including Rotary International and the LDS church. Kampala, the capital city, has a population in excess of 1.6 million residents. Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world, with 37 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day.
We got an early start Monday morning, but I should have remembered that in Africa, 9 a.m. is a little more realistic. But by 9:30 we really got started with taking digital x-rays and deep cleanings and fillings. The digital x-rays blew their socks off they had never seen anything that cool before. Everyone had to come see it in action, even dentists in the outlying areas came into town for a demonstration. The dental student training was essential to what we wanted to accomplish. We were kept busy answering questions as they assisted us with every patient. By the end of two weeks, we had completed 81 exams, 148 x-rays, 65 deep cleanings, 156 fillings, removed 16 teeth, and performed one root canal. Approximately 95% of the dental treatment we provided was preventive. This is what one might expect as normal in advanced countries, but unfortunately in Africa, almost all dental treatment is merely the removal of teeth. 98% of the dental care in Uganda is tooth extraction.
Periodontal problems are a big issue in Africa, even for the young African missionaries. They say they don’t floss because it’s too expensive. I don’t think I met any of the missionaries who have ever had a cleaning. This explains why so many suffered from advanced periodontal disease, what we might see in the States in a 40 year old smoker. Dental hygienists are crucial to the success of our mission. They often can clean teeth better than the dentists!
The mission of LDS African Smiles Inc. (no affiliation with or funding from the LDS Church) is to first provide training for African dental providers, helping them move forward from just removing a problem tooth to actually preventing the problem. We do this by teaching them how to be more preventive minded. X-rays and cleaning are the building blocks. It makes great medical sense as well as financial, since it costs the same amount to remove a tooth as it does to do a filling, if it is done at the right time. Prevention is everything in Africa.
Our second goal is to take care of the hundreds of native LDS missionaries serving in Africa who have never seen a dentist before, except perhaps to have a tooth removed. Our third goal is to help with worthy non-profit organizations like “Set Her Free,” a safe house in Uganda for young girls who have been rescued from the evils of human trafficking. This serves as a home that provides not only food and shelter, but also formal education, medical care and resettlement opportunities for the young girls. Our team provided dental care to about 30 girls at the Set Her Free safe house. Several girls were suffering from pain associated with various tooth related ailments.
We also provided free dental services to many LDS missionaries serving in Uganda from the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar and even the USA. I would normally ask the Sisters and Elders where they are from because my prior LDS mission included many of their areas. The Area Presidency was very supportive of our humanitarian mission to Uganda to help not only the missionaries but also the local population and dental students.
I was able to meet a young native missionary serving in Uganda from East London, South Africa. I quickly asked him if he knew one of my old missionary companions who was a Stake President there, and he replied with a big smile that he was a close friend of his and his family. He left with four fillings and the promise to say hello for me the next time he emailed home. It only proves how small a world we live in.
Another favorite experience I will always remember was meeting Angela from the Set Her Free house.
When we first met her, I couldn’t get her to smile. Her front teeth were a mess and she would not allow a smile, no matter how hard we tried. We spent a good hour or more repairing her front teeth and then when we asked her to smile again, she still wouldn’t—until we handed her a mirror. Then she started to cry and laugh all at the same time! Her friends were so excited to see her new smile! It sounded like a New Year’s Eve party with everyone singing and dancing! Only then did I begin to realize the full impact of our dental team’s visit to Uganda.
This year’s trip was the best so far. The Uganda Mission President, Eric Jackson, was incredibly supportive and inspiring. The senior missionary couples, especially the Jonsons and Grundys, were fantastic! I now consider them some of my newest and most cherished friends. To see them in action, you know what a great service is provided by our senior missionary couples around the world. What a great place to serve. Previously our team has provided dental care in South Africa (with my supportive wife Micki) and in Rwanda (with Dr. Drew G. Cahoon, D.D.S. of Alberta, Canada).
Now that I have returned to California, albeit a bit jet lagged, I realize that no one takes off on a journey 11 time zones away without a few unknowns. It’s called faith and being anxiously engaged in a good cause, and doing many things of their own free will. This faith truly helps to make everything work out in the end. I’m even more excited to return to Africa next year on another humanitarian mission, because of the life-changing experiences that will never be forgotten. Our goal is to provide important dental to work to at least 1,000 African missionaries serving on the African continent, many of whom would otherwise not receive proper dental care, in addition to helping the local population. To help, find us at https://twitter.com/LDSAfricaSmiles.