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Mission with a dentist chair

Prineville dentist Craig Hehn pulled hundreds of teeth while serving a mission with Mbuyu Charities in Papua New Gineau


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Craig Hehn treats a local in Papua New Guinea.

Most of us are wimps, it seems, when it comes to pain - especially tooth pain.

Give us a little dental discomfort and we're immediately on the phone to our dentist. Woe be it if it's on a weekend!

People in other parts of the world have a bit more patience - they have to. Papua New Guinea, just 100 miles north of Australia, is a case in point.

"I heard that of the five million people in Papua New Guinea, there were like 20 dentists. They're what you might call underserved," said Prineville dentist Craig Hehn.

Hehn, 58, returned in September from a 12-day medical mission trip to this country with Mbuyu Charities, a Christian charity founded in part by local physician assistant Ken Long. Mbuyu, Long said, is the Swahili word for "Tree of Life," another name for the baobab tree.

"Evidentially, they had a dentist who was lined out for this trip and he backed out fairly late in the deal," said Hehn, "so Ken asked me if I'd be interested. I said, 'Well, I might be, let me think about it.'"

There would be a personal cost involved. He'd have to close his practice for a couple weeks and all the travel would be on him. It certainly wouldn't be an expense-paid vacation.

Hehn said he talked to his wife about it, they prayed about it, and then he called Long a week later to commit. He also got the OK for his 16-year-old son, Jacob, to go along.

"I thought that would be a real good experience for him, to experience life out there in the real world, what the rest of the world's like."

Jacob agreed.

"I just thought it would be fun," he said. "Dad asked me if I wanted to go, and I said "Yeah. Sure. I got off of school for 12 days - that was nice."

The local dentist had no idea what to expect or how to prepare, and so he contacted a colleague who had gone before.

"He said to just go and be prepared to just do extractions, because by doing that, you're going to be making by far the best use of your time," Hehn said. "So I gathered stuff together - materials, disposables, instruments - and I was figuring on maybe extracting a couple hundred teeth."

Jacob said he didn't know what to expect, and wondered if he'd even have enough to do.

After three days of travel, including crossing the International Date Line and an unscheduled layover, the trio joined the rest of the team in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea. Mount Hagen is the capital of the Western Highlands province and the third largest city in the country, with a population near 40,000.

The medical clinic was set up inside a church compound within a partly-constructed building, according to Hehn.

"It was just cement floors. It was walled and roofed, no windows, no doors."

The "dental chair" consisted of a folding bench for the patients to lie on, said Long, which was oriented toward an open window to provide light. Plastic chairs were stacked to get Hehn to a proper height to work somewhat comfortably. Flashlights were used to augment the natural light.

"Then we'd elevate their head with a pillow," added Hehn. "It actually worked pretty well. The lighting, I was surprised at how good it was, just using those flashlights, 'cause I could see pretty well."

Work started each morning by about 8:30.

"When we got there in the morning, there was usually somewhere between 350-400 people lined up outside (the fenced compound), waiting to get in," Hehn recalled. "We'd come in, and they'd start letting the people in, slowly, and get them organized, and then they would triage them, to see who needed what treatment, whether it was medical treatment, or dental, chiropractic, or whatever."

Once inside, the people waited in a large tent designed to keep them out of the elements. Dental patients were sent - a small group at a time - to a sort of "on deck" bench in the clinic. There, Long administered local anesthesia in between doing other non-dental duties.

"I'd sort of watch them there," he explained, "and in between running out, and in between, would inject two or three. By the time I'd get those three injected, run out and do a couple of things, and come back, the bench was almost empty again."

"It was nice having them pretty much numb ahead of time. There were a few times he disappointed me," Hehn teased. "When they yelped, (I would think) 'Oh. He must not be numb.'"

Contrary to his expectations, Jacob had plenty to do. Along with sterilizing the instruments after each patient, he also held the flashlight so his dad could see, and helped with whatever else was needed at the time.

By the end of the week, Hehn and his team had pulled 374 teeth from 157 patients.

"We worked pretty hard," he said. "I know my back was sore every day."

"They'd never had dental care," Long said of their patients. "Craig pulled as many as seven teeth from some people."

"We took 14 teeth out on a 17-year-old kid one time," Jacob said. "They were terrible. (They) chew a lot of betel nut. They were rotten."

Even though the majority of the teeth extracted were decayed down to the gum line, Hehn said he didn't see any really bad infections. When the decay is that bad, he explained, the pulp chamber of the tooth opens, and the infection naturally drains, relieving some of the pain and pressure.

"Pain, for many of these people around the world, is a way of life," said Long. "They live with it. You can't do an awful lot, sometimes. You just do what you can."

While the people were definitely appreciative, what impressed Hehn the most was their happiness.

"These people have nothing, and they're so joyful," he said. "They're just wonderful people."

"You'll see that in every place I've gone," interjected Long. "They have nothing, but they're happy. They're physically in need. These people will go and sit for a complete day, waiting for a chance to be seen. There are no appointments here. They will sit for a whole day in the rain, in the sun, whatever goes on."

Jacob thought it was a worthwhile experience for him.

"It was really, really different over there - how people live, how they eat. It was good. I'm glad I went."

"What stuck in my mind the most is that it was a really good way to serve the Lord," said Hehn. "While we were up working the clinics, I understand around 80 people, at least, declared Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior. That's probably the most rewarding thing, for me.

"I appreciate Ken's Mbuyu ministry because, when you're going to do a medical mission, I definitely want there to be a spiritual element to it, too. I don't want it to just be health care. That's nice, that's fine. You're helping someone get through a hard time. But when there's a spiritual element involved, you're helping them for eternity."



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