LDS Dentists Reach Out

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“LDS Dentists Reach Out,” Ensign, June 1992, 64–65

LDS Dentists Reach Out

About one hundred people are waiting for the mobile dentist office to arrive in the small Thai village. When the converted school bus arrives, two Latter-day Saint dentists prepare for a day’s work.

The dentists, with their Thai assistants, immediately begin extracting teeth and treating infections. Often the dentists wear sweat bands to keep the perspiration out of their eyes. But at the end of the day, when they are too tired to work any longer, the line of patients is just as long as when they started.

“I found myself doing a normal week’s worth of dentistry in a day,” said one dentist, who volunteered for a month of service in Thailand.

In an effort to help alleviate oral disease problems of people worldwide, the Academy of LDS Dentists sponsors service projects in many nations, said Dr. Gordon J. Christensen, founding president of the academy.

“The dentists consider it an extension of Church service, as well as fulfilling the oath they took as professionals,” said Dr. Jack Karl Rasmussen of Salt Lake City, speaking of the many hours spent in volunteer work.

Since the organization of the academy in 1977 at Brigham Young University, dentists have served in Africa, China, Israel, Mexico, South America, the republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, Thailand, the West Indies, and the United States.

The projects include treating dental caries and caring for gum and bone diseases and poorly functioning teeth, as well as providing training and supplies to local health professionals and teaching dental hygiene programs, Dr. Christensen said.

The support for service projects among the academy members and their families is overwhelming, Dr. Rasmussen said, and the dentists know that in some countries, the dentist from the academy may be the only dentist many people will see in their lives.

In many nations, local dentists have difficulty dealing with an overwhelming demand for their services because they are hampered by limited supplies and training. Because they are so few in number, each Thai dentist could serve as many as 300,000 patients, contrasted with 1,500 patients per dentist in the United States, says Dr. Dale Linton of Bountiful, Utah.

The project in Thailand ran for about five years in the mid-1980s, with dentists donating a month to six weeks treating those in need. “I’ve spent thirty years in dentistry, and that month was the most satisfying I’ve spent in the profession,” said Dr. John Bevan of Salt Lake City.

The academy is now developing another project in the area, a plan providing retired dentists to train Thai professionals and donate medical equipment. “It is one way to teach the people to take care of themselves,” Dr. Linton said.

In 1988, members of the Academy of LDS Dentists took part in a health fair in Trinidad sponsored by Church members. Eight couples who are members of the academy volunteered their time and paid their own travel expenses in order to screen thousands of people for dental problems.

Also in the West Indies, the academy is working with educational leaders in St. Lucia to formulate a dental hygiene program. In health care, the prevention of disease can be far more important and less costly than the treatment of the same disease, says Dr. Christensen.

The academy has helped support the Instituto Superior de Odontologia, the dental school in Chihuahua, Mexico, by donating equipment, supplies, and training. Clinics in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Jamaica have also received medical help.

The academy is always looking at new opportunities for service. One member has been involved in training dental students in Uganda, and several dentists have traveled to China to help with education.

In June 1991, four dentists and two lab assistants traveled to the republic of Georgia in the Soviet Union to lecture and demonstrate dental techniques. “The experience felt like a mini-mission,” said Dr. Kent Seal of Sandy, Utah, “and we developed a special love for the people we served.”

Donations from the academy are funding the education of Latter-day Saint dentists in less developed nations around the world. This particular project, administered through the Church Educational System, provides an education for students who have no other means of support, said Dr. Rasmussen.

The long-term possibilities are tremendous as these students, many of them returned missionaries, learn to be leaders in the Church and in their professions, he said.

Through their service, said Dr. Christensen, academy dentists have developed love, empathy, and fellowship with people worldwide.

Dr. Gordon Taylor of the Academy of LDS Dentists examines a young boy at a 1989 health fair in Trinidad. (Photo by Dr. Jay F. Harmer.)