kenya-volunteer-experienceby Stuart Rich, DDS, August 2009

Namoidu’s face is etched with 6 decades of living the hardscrabble life of a Masai. Today, it is also etched with something else…deep pain. The fissures and lines embedded by years of exposure to the elements uniformly cover her face and neck-except for her grossly swollen lower right neck and jaw area, where the skin is drawn tight. She sits down sidesaddle on the dental chair, not wanting to put her travel worn and laceless plastic shoes on the upholstery.

An x-ray reveals that numbers 31 and 32 are grossly decayed. My assistant explains in Masai what I’ll be doing as I prepare to remove the culprits responsible for her weeks of constant pain. Upon extracting the teeth, I am rewarded by a healthy flow of infection from the sockets.

After some manual decompression and suction to further drain the infection, the effect on her appearance is immediate and dramatic. I send her on her way with antibiotics and instructions to return in a few days for a post-op check.

The Masai are not known for being especially demonstrative, but Namoidu clasps one of my large and smooth white hands with both of her thin and rough ebony ones. She says quietly, “Asante Sana,” which means “Thank you very much,” before shuffling out the door. The moisture at the corner of her eyes is from relief of pain, in mine from gratitude for the opportunity to have served her.

Namoidu is one of the 30,000 people living in the Masai Mara area of Southern Kenya who live within “walking” distance of the new Siana Springs dental clinic. Walking distance to a Masai is up to 40 kilometers! 40 kilometers of sharp quartz, 2 inch acacia thorns, snakes, scorpions and predators. Namoidu was my first patient on my first day in Siana Springs. She very well could have died from that infection had it spread further into her head and neck.

The rest of that day, and the 12 following fell into an irregular pattern. Some days we were swamped, on others we had hours between patients. The procedures were predictable, primarily pain relief through extracting grossly decayed molars, usually followed by encouragement to return for restoration of several other teeth. A number of my patients on the second week were returns for restorative care-an encouraging sign.

Manja, another memorable patient, was absolutely amazed that I could restore his front tooth so well as to be undetectable. He had lost the incisal third of the tooth three years ago in a bicycle accident. Something so routine in Auburn was being viewed with wonder and true amazement by a patient in the African bush. He clasped the mirror with both hands and held it close to inspect my work. He showed off his newly restored smile confidently to everyone as he left, still chuckling to himself.

There were many reasons to consider volunteering here: the faculty is modern and well equipped and the living quarters are comfortable. Nearby are some of the best African Safari game drive opportunities anywhere. These were all understandable and compelling reasons to come to Siana Springs. My sense of adventure was more than satisfied and I left with a lifetime of memories.

However, on the day we left, as I watched my son Skyler help shoo a herd of goats off the dirt strip so our plane could land, that’s not what I was reflecting on. As our pilot pivoted the 12 seat Cessna around to hurtle back down the strip, I looked out the window one last time at my new friends and put my palm to the glass. William waved exuberantly with both hands and Eunice beamed her warm broad smile.

I smiled back as their images blurred, both from the dust as the prop blew dust part my window, and from the moisture accumulating in my eyes. I turned to my wife-her condition was no better. My two boys were no help either. To a member, our family was profoundly changed, not just by the adventure, but by the people we met, the patients we helped and the perspective we gained. It’s an experience we will never forget. I have a much larger family now…and some of them live in Kenya.

» Article by Dr. Rich published in the Auburn Reporter