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Wide Open Humanitarian takes dental care to remote villages in northern India

King City dentist Dr. Greg Williams works on a local official in India with the help of dental assistant Marta Pallazio.Dr. Greg Williams was far, far away from his King City office last spring on a humanitarian dental mission in remote northern India.

The team of 36 worked in Ladakh, a region that is part of Jammu and Kashmir (the disputed territory between India and Pakistan).

Not for the faint of heart or short of breath, Ladakh lies north of the Great Himalayas; most of the region exceeds altitudes of 9,800 feet, and the sparse population is made up of people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent.

“It was more like Tibet than India,” Williams said. “There was a lot of military presence, so it was considered safe and secure. There was no GPS or cellphone service available, and it was illegal to use a satellite phone.”

Williams, a Sherwood resident, and Dr. Scott Dyer, a Tualatin prosthodontist, started Wide Open Humanitarian, a nonprofit organization, in 2007 after making previous humanitarian trips.

They chose northern India for this trip because Dyer was previously there and worked with a dental student from nearby Nepal. In addition, another dentist on the team was friends with Bill Kyte, who runs a trucking company in the area and arranges for medical groups to come in and do humanitarian work.

“We visited the area in September 2011 to see if the facilities were adequate and Bill could accommodate us,” Williams said. “He donated our food and lodging and provided the ground transportation.”

In turn, Williams’ group donated equipment for a humanitarian clinic that Kyte built.

The team consisted of 10 dentists, five dental students, one physician, four dental hygienists, nine dental assistants, one equipment specialist and six youth assistants ages 13 to 18, including two of Williams’ children.

The clinic was set up in a school, and kids were bused in from nearby towns.

“We primarily worked on children,” Williams said. “We like to focus on kids. We did see adults — we treated teachers, local officials and the police chief, and we worked on enlightened monks. We were the only local option for dentistry in the area. And the roads shut down over the winter — if you have a toothache, you have to wait until spring — there is no other option.

Dozens of children wait patiently for dental care on the fifth day of the clinic that Wide Open Humanitarian set up in northern India last spring.“People lined up to see us. We saw and treated 1,500 people and performed 4,000 procedures like extractions, fillings, root canals, cleaning and sealants. First we focus on pain control and then prevention and education. There is no local dentist there, so we worked with a local nurse and showed her how to do more procedures, and we left a lot of supplies.”

Two of the issues the team dealt with were that many village people do not regularly brush their teeth and American soft drinks are becoming increasingly popular.

“They’re not drinking yak milk and eating barley balls anymore,” Williams said. “They’re drinking Coke. The adults had much better teeth but more gum disease than the kids. The kids had more cavities and decayed teeth. Most adults had their own teeth — we saw only a few toothless people.

“We worked on the director of the school who had gone to Singapore for dental work. He had eight or 10 implants, but he had decay in his natural teeth because there was no way to maintain good dental health. He got Cadillac treatment but couldn’t get low-level maintenance.”

According to Williams, Kyte’s dream is to get teams of rotating volunteer dentists to come to the area.

When asked if he gets discouraged by being able to help only a tiny percentage of people with dental problems when he goes on his annual missions, Williams answered, “Sometimes you look at the problem and think, ‘The problem is bigger than I am.’ We won’t solve all the problems everywhere we go, but we leave places better. If we leave them better in any way, then we have helped.

With the Himalayas in the background, the entire Wide Open Humanitarian team poses with Lamdon School students, staff and local officials during its visit there to perform dental work.“We train local nurses and doctors and pave the way for future groups to come in. If other groups come in because we’ve been there, then we’ve won. As an example, our first trip was to Peru, and there is now an ongoing dental and medical program. We brought it in — the road is paved.

“In Guatemala, we worked alongside local dentists and showed them how to be mobile so they could go to outlying areas. In Western Samoa, they were very proprietary and opposed to outside assistance, but we helped another group get in after we were there, and now Samoa has an open-door policy. It helps when you know who to talk to.”

While Wide Open Humanitarian leaves native people with fewer dental problems in the countries it visits, it also has become a popular organization for volunteers.

“We don’t do ‘cattle calls’ anymore,” Williams said. “We have a network of doctors who want to work with us and dental students who want to do humanitarian work. I feel encouraged more than discouraged. I turn away people who want to join us because there is a limit on how many we can take on a trip.

“We can’t do everything, but we can do some things. We’re not going to stop because we can’t do everything. And we try to help people in this country too. We are not neglecting Oregon at all. But people have recourse here — they don’t there.”

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