These are encouraging times for mission organizations and workers committed to serving the health needs of suffering people. Never before have there been so many opportunities to reach non-believers with pain relief and the caring gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Ron Lamb provides dental care.
Several factors are making medical/dental missions increasingly more successful not only in relieving pain and suffering, but also in terms of being publicly acknowledged for assisting worldwide emergency and disaster relief. First, technology allows for smaller, lighter-weight portable equipment. Second, improved global logistics and more efficient transportation increase efficiency and help mission organizations preserve valuable resources and time. Recent, well-publicized emergency and relief efforts have provided mission organizations the opportunity to contribute their expertise and compassion to helping millions cope with loss, pain and suffering.
In medical/dental missions, we look to Jesus' own earthly ministry as our example. He relieved pain and suffering while also sharing the gospel message. Since that time many individuals and organizations have been using medical/dental care in a similar manner. The opportunity to combine pain relief and evangelism is becoming more available for missionary dentists who have the opportunity to serve what many describe as the number one healthcare problem in the world—the toothache!
“Toothache” can indicate a variety of problems; however, an untreated toothache is typically so painful that an oral infection or impacted tooth renders the sufferer completely distracted, often helpless and sometimes in a life-threatening condition. Dentists who accompany medical missions report that lines to the dental chair form early and remain long.
Dr. Dean Stacy is connected with Mission Hospital's Dental Program in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, and has traveled extensively to Africa and Central America. Stacy reports of one trip to Mexico with a physician colleague:
“Invariably, when we arrive in a village, people start lining up for care and the quickest (line) to form is one for the dentist. Dental care is the most acute need among under-served populations. And, once their dental pain is relieved, which often creates a trust relationship, people are much more likely to seek the medical care they also need, but might otherwise have not received. The same dynamic allows me to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that makes it all worth while for me.”
This sentiment is shared by many seasoned dental mission outfitters, including Dr. Sam Molind, director of Global Health Outreach, the mission arm of the CMDA (Christian Medical and Dental Associations), and Dr. Ron Lamb, founder of World Dental Relief (WDR). Both believe portable dentistry is often the gateway to reach otherwise distrustful or skeptical populations with general healthcare.
Lamb has been training and equipping medical/dental practitioners for more than thirty-five years. He recently remarked, “Nowhere has technology and service been more effective in delivering modern medical care to suffering people who live in remote, under-served locations than in dentistry.”
Many churches and mission organizations provide dental care as their mission outreach. For professional expertise, logistical support and outfitting services, they frequently interface with support organizations such as CMDA, WDR and the Christian Dental Society (CDS). In 2005 CDS assisted fifty-two dental missions teams on mission trips to twenty-two countries. CMDA plans on deploying over forty teams in 2006 primarily to the West Africa and Amazon regions. World Dental Relief outfitted more than four hundred dental mission trips to ninety-two countries in 2005. On average, these teams served between five and eight hundred people per week. In total, over 350,000 suffering people were ministered to in the name of Jesus Christ.
From Extractions to Modern Care
In the past five years, delivery of needed healthcare services has improved significantly. Recent advances in portable dental equipment design and manufacturing have dramatically lowered costs and improved quality. This has allowed mission dentists to not only relieve pain by extracting infected teeth, but to provide modern dental care and maintenance, previously only available exclusively to developed countries, to the remotest areas of the world. According to Molind,
“We have gone from a time when mission dentists would only do extractions and care for infection and pain, to a time when we are able to provide more complete oral healthcare. That means everything from treating gum disease to fillings, crowns and replacement of missing teeth. This is encouraging dentists to go into the mission field where they can contribute and train nationals to also provide care. We need to undertake new initiatives and train more indigenous dental healthcare workers who can serve large populations. We also need to promote proactive wellness so that service providers and patients can use the latest portable dental equipment to bring about a sense of well-being for their own dental health, in both appearance and function.”
Surprisingly, because of improvements in portable equipment and logistics, dental care is now also being increasingly delivered to isolated and underserved patients found in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, prisons, and other types of care institutions within the United States and other modern societies.
Dr. Dean Stacy
Technology, Logistics and Perception
Recent developments of high-tech portable dental equipment are changing how dental care is delivered both on the mission field and within the most developed societies. Today's portable dental equipment is significantly smaller and lighter-weight than ever before and portable units operate on either 110 or 220-volt power levels. Portable operatory systems used by the United States military currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq include vacuum equipped operative units, a dental chair, stools and overhead lights.
Improved transportation and logistics (air and water traffic) allows for easier delivery of equipment and people who can take it to remote populations, nearby under-served populations and disaster relief locations. This can be done within a few hours. Dennis McCutcheon, director of MedEquip Missions, a ministry of Helps International Ministries, advises that working, field-tested, portable equipment is always preferable to the latest equipment that needs highly-technical back up and regular maintenance. “Often, the best equipment solution is simple low-tech devices,” McCutcheon said. “Needs should be studied and met by the best means possible for the situation.”
Perceptions of dental missions are changing, too. News of the success stories of how mission workers have contributed to relief of human suffering caused by recent natural disasters, such as the December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, are occasionally being told in the mainstream press. Mission organizations were responsive and efficient in providing much-needed leadership in recent disaster relief areas.
The general public can now get a glimpse into the enormous contribution dental missions have in serving the otherwise overwhelming needs and circumstances of under-served populations. Because of this, the world has witnessed the leadership role being assumed and carried out by well-equipped and trained mission organizations. In spite of the tragedy of these disasters, the world is seeing, in undeniably graphic detail, God's love and compassion as expressed through followers of Jesus Christ.
Early Missions Support: A Personal Story
Many years ago the management of Aseptico, which provides dental equipment to those on the mission field, received a cryptic message from a group of missionaries in Africa. The missionaries said they were in possession of a dugout canoe, and were preparing to use it to travel up and down a section of the Congo River. They would, of course, call on local villages as they traveled the river. They were contacting Aseptico to request a special portable dental unit that would fit in the bow of the canoe. They gave no dimensions for the boat, no weight specification, no information as to how they hoped to power the system and no input as to the scope and range of dental treatment they hoped to provide. The unit was built by using a “best guess” philosophy and portable dental equipment technology. The unit was sent off to Africa and fit the needs of the missionaries perfectly. For years after, Aseptico would receive a message from these travelers each Christmas that said, “Dental unit still working perfectly. Praise the Lord!”
A line quickly forms for dental care
From the Congo to Next Door
Just as dental missions are penetrating the most remote populations and locations, there are also emerging opportunities in communities in more developed countries.
The flexibility of portable dental equipment is helping domestic mission dentists deliver improved dental care within rapidly growing institutional living environments such as: hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools, small rural healthcare clinics, prisons and factories. It is now simple for domestic mission workers to bring care and equipment to any patient who has difficulty getting to a dental office.
The Present – A Story from the Field
Dr. Ron Lamb recently shared this personal story from the field in Peru:
“In May, we set out to find an unreached village in the Amazon. We coordinated with a missionary, national Christian brothers who are dentists, lay workers and a retired United States Navy Seal who frequently assists us on our trips. Two natives went six months in advance with a chainsaw to build a church in a remote location near the village – an attempt to establish goodwill. We assembled our team in Iquitos, Peru, and traveled 125 miles above the headwaters of the Amazon into the jungle, at that remote location. During the week, 108 villagers gave their hearts to the Lord. Now, a lay pastor will be visiting them two days a month to nurture the new church and congregation. There will be continued follow-up. One 70-year-old man of the village said, `You have taken the pain out of here,' (pointing to his mouth) `and you have taken pain out of here' (pointing to his heart).”
Responding to Mission Needs
There are a growing number of dental equipment manufacturers that are marketing a variety of new, portable solutions. These include lightweight chairs, stools, lamps, trays and the high-tech hardware (instruments) that dentists use to repair and replace teeth.
Portable dental products can be used on the mission field in many ways: (1) as primary equipment in developing areas where health clinic office space must be multi-purpose and requires periodic equipment removal and return; (2) as back-up equipment where power and other stationary services are unreliable or where supplemental portable services are provided to patients and easy transportation is desired; or (3) as portable service equipment needed in times of isolation, emergency or military necessity.
For mission applications, equipment must be designed specifically to be easily transported by hand, car, boat, dugout, helicopter, motorcycle or bullock cart. Unlike mobile equipment that is often stationary equipment fitted with handles, portable systems today are akin to a laptop computer that performs the same functions as a desktop model but is uniquely designed for portable use and rugged wear.
Dental missions brings benefits that far surpass sales growth and profit. At Aseptico, we have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with many dedicated Christians (and their churches), who devote much of their energy and resources to spreading of the message of the gospel of Christ. Our Lord admonished us to go into all the world and preach the gospel. He has put in our hands, even through the realities of human suffering and human needs, avenues of opportunity that pave the way to the hearts and souls of fellow humans around the world. That way is paved with care and love that is now frequently expressed in terms of competent dental care that is reaching people who have never before enjoyed these benefits. For Ken Goff, our primary civilian and military portable sales representative, and for the entire Kazen family (as founders and operators of Aseptico), these benefits are precious rewards indeed.