Whitehall dentist leaves behind miles of smiles in Nepal

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 Photo courtesy of Himalayan Dental Relief Project
Dr. Douglas Lin, left, a Columbus dentist with an eastside practice, recently made his second trip to Nepal with the Himalayan Dental Relief Project, which provides care to people in remote and impoverished countries. Lin has made four such trips, including India and Vietnam, and is planning his fifth.

Most people come back with smiles from their vacations.

Pediatric dentist Dr. Douglas Lin leaves smiles behind.

He has volunteered four times with the Himalayan Dental Relief Project, most recently in Nepal, treating hundreds of children who may have never seen a dentist before.

The goal of the project is to make sure that their patients have a check-up and necessary dental work every one to three years. Volunteers have provided $3 million worth of services since 2000.

Lin, a Clintonville resident who works from an office on East Main Street in Whitehall, first heard about the humanitarian effort in 2003 during a presentation at the Buddhist temple he attends.

"I had always wanted to do volunteer work, but nothing else had clicked," Lin said.

He left the lecture and started to drive home, then turned around and went back, finding the presenter in the parking lot. After a few minutes of discussion, he signed on.

He has since traveled to Vietnam and the remote village of Ladakh in northern India, near the border of Kashmir.

His trip this spring was his second to Nepal, home to Mount Everest and seven other of the tallest peaks on the planet.

Nepal, wedged between India and China, is considered one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with one-third of its population living in poverty.

Many kinds of health care are desperately lacking, including dental care. There are only around 250 dentists for the nation’s 28 million people.

Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the Himalayan Dental Relief Project sends in a team of five dentists, hygienists and non-medical volunteers to see up to 150 patients a day over six days.

Lin and his colleagues set up shop in the capital city of Kathmandu in a boarding school for refugee children.

Even before arriving, the cultural differences are evident.

Due to rampant corruption, supplies and equipment can’t be shipped in ahead, because they would be quickly stolen, Lin explained. So they have to be carried in by the team making its way from Los Angeles to Osaka, Japan, Bangkok, Thailand and then Kathmandu, a city of 1.5 million people.

After a few days to get over jet lag, everyone gets to work.

The treatment offered is basic, Lin said, and the clinical setting is sometimes makeshift. Patients lie on army cots. There is no sterilizer, so instruments are boiled and scrubbed. If a piece of equipment breaks, it is repaired, not replaced.

A nationwide strike slowed for the program for a time, as patients found it difficult to reach the clinic through barricaded streets.

Nepal’s political situation has been volatile for a number of years, as Maoist forces have battled supporters of the constitutional monarchy. A vote on a new constitution that could eliminate the monarchy is scheduled for later this year.

Lin’s patients ranged from boarding school children in Western-style blazers and ties, to student monks in saffron robes, to orphans from war zones.

It is unlikely that any of these would be frightened about a trip to the dentist, Lin observed. "These are pretty tough kids."

The dentists are assisted by a translator, usually a local high school student. One of these students was so inspired by the project that she is now studying to become a doctor.

With America’s commercial influence increasing in Nepal, candy and Coca-Cola have become more common. One of Lin’s photographs shows two young monks blowing bubble gum bubbles. Sugar in tea has also become routine.

As a result, dentists began seeing more cavities, Lin said. Prevention and education about good dental hygiene and diet are important parts of the program, and fewer signs of decay and fewer extractions are being seen.

You don’t have to be a professional to participate in the program. Non-medical personnel assist with organizing the patients and presenting the educational component.

Lin’s daughters, Kathy, a 19-year-old student at Kenyon College, and Anna, a senior at Columbus School for Girls, accompanied him and helped by teaching the children how to brush and entertaining them while they waited for their turn in the dentist’s chair.

Seeing life in a Third World country was "eye-opening" for the young women, Lin said.

There is time for sightseeing after the six-day stint.

Lin didn’t have to go far to see the sights. The majestic Himalayas were right outside his hotel room window.

Out in the streets he encountered people prostrated in prayer, and monkeys running around the temples. Hindus, who make up 80 percent of the population, prepare bodies for cremation along the river.

Elaborately painted holy men pose for pictures, and are worldly enough to ask for money for having their photographs taken.

The biggest reward is found in the happy faces of the children who can look forward to better health, Lin offered.

He is already planning his next trip, to Guatemala. The Dental Relief Project has also gone to New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

For information on how to volunteer or donate to the Himalayan Dental Relief Project, visit www.himalayandental.com.

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