Free dental mission treats the last and the least in Cambodia

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By Mark Ellis

Dr. Yamamoto treats a young patient
Dr. Yamamoto treats a young patient

The concrete floor of this children’s center and church is dirty, flies buzz in the air, and dogs wander among young and old who are drawn by the offering of free dental care. Most of them have never seen a dentist and don’t know how to brush their teeth.

Along the banks of the Tonle sap River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Vietnamese boat people tied their boats many years ago and never left. They are undocumented immigrants rejected by Cambodia and Vietnam, but they endure, stateless and powerless, hauling food and supplies for their pigs and their families up and down the steep banks.

A Vietnamese immigrant hauls pig feed down to his floating house along the Tonle Sap River
A Vietnamese immigrant hauls pig feed down to his floating house along the Tonle Sap River

Many of these impoverished people will need tooth extractions because their teeth are so badly decayed or infected, and that can present challenges for Dr. Teru Yamamoto, visiting from the U.S. with his wife Shari and a small team invited by Dr. Paul Ai, founder of Vision Outreach International.

They hauled 250 pounds of equipment from Orange County, California for the mission. “We have limited care because we don’t have access to X-rays,” Dr. Yamamoto notes. He will use composites to fill cavities rather than silver and he tries to avoid surgery.

“We can supply clinically safe dentistry with minimal supplies,” he says. Rather than bring sterilization equipment, an old fashioned pressure cooker purchased locally will sterilize his instruments. Linda Ungerland, a dental hygienist, adds efficiency to the team by giving shots of anesthetic to the patients and helping to pre-screen each patient’s condition with a mother’s loving touch.

Operating without X-rays, unwanted surprises sometimes present themselves. When Dr. Yamamoto attempted

Ruth Ai prays for a patient
Ruth Ai prays for a patient

to gain a firm grip on one woman’s tooth to extract it, the tooth simply crumbled into dust. At that point, he’s in too far to turn back and must proceed with a more difficult procedure.

“In these situations we pray a lot,” he says. Indeed, on one demanding extraction, when he discovered the roots were wider than the space between the teeth, the woman in his portable chair was squirming in pain as the procedure dragged on. Pastor Paul and his wife Ruth quickly came to her side and began to pray. Mercifully, the tooth finally broke free.

Even though the patients receive local anesthetic, there are squirms and occasional cries – upsetting to the

Children and their parents wait and watch in the same room where Dr. Yamamoto works
Children and their parents wait and watch in the same room where Dr. Yamamoto works

orphan children sitting in the same room, their eyes suddenly wide with trepidation about their first dental care. Dr. Yamamoto admits it is less than ideal to have a full room of spectators while he works.

One woman in her seventies – like many older people in this stretch of single-wall shanties – has already lost most of her teeth. After a consultation with the dentist, she declines treatment because she fears the shot that will numb her gums. She decides to continue to let the remaining teeth fall out one at a time.

Unfortunately, many of the pre-teens already have badly decayed and infected adult teeth that must be removed.

Two men carry in one older woman who can barely walk to receive her first dental care. In the U.S. she would have qualified for a hip replacement years ago, but here, she is disabled.

While Dr. Yamamoto usually sees five patients a day in his practice in Costa Mesa California, he often sees 20 or

Linda Ungerland pre-screens patients
Linda Ungerland pre-screens patients

more each day on these mission trips. “We can treat six to seven patients an hour, which is amazing,” he says.

Despite the challenges of dental care in this environment, the people who receive the care are enormously grateful. “Without the church, I would never see a dentist,” one woman told Pastor Ai.

Pastor Ai recently planted three Lighthouse Children’s Refuges in Phnom Penh among Vietnamese immigrants. There are five other centers for Khmer children he planted in the provinces outside Phnom Penh.

These centers teach children Vietnamese, Khmer, and English using the Bible, along with math, computer, and sewing. After their first month of operation, they will do an outreach to the surrounding community and begin Sunday church services among the families and neighbors of the children.

Paul Ai surveys boats where Vietnamese immigrants live
Paul Ai surveys boats where Vietnamese immigrants live

Many of the kids have parents who have left them with relatives as they go off in search of work. “Your parents have left you but God is your Father and the church is your mother,” Pastor Ai tells the children.

“We will feed you and teach you and then release you to be a blessing to your community.” Several children who graduated from his centers are helping in leadership capacities as young adults.

“We thank God for the fruit, that they are released back to the community and multiply,” he says.