Like many of my colleagues from dental school that pursued a career in medicine, I found treating patients in my native Sweden who enjoy superb access to dental and medical health care less than fulfilling. I contacted several international organizations offering humanitarian dental care to much less fortunate people and that initially took me to Cambodia where I worked for two months treating poor and orphan children as well as prisoners. This first experience in humanitarian dentistry made it clear to me that I had chosen the right path. To be working there as a dentist in rural Cambodia was truly a mutually beneficial experience for me as well as for those I could help. For many of the patients it was the first time ever to see a dentist. Some of the children had such badly decayed teeth that even the barely erupted first molars needed root canal treatment or the permanent front teeth were decayed down to the roots. Sometimes the equipment was not functioning or dental materials would be missing, but still you had to use your creativity to make it work because the patient needed their treatments so badly. When I finished my work there it was only natural to continue to do humanitarian work in countries where there is a huge need and the availability of a dentist is low or basically nonexistent. I had also realized that this was the format when I enjoyed being a dentist most of all.
In 2013, I was browsing around on the internet searching for another opportunity and I came across the Himalayan Dental Project. I sent off an email explaining my interest to volunteer and within a few hours I had a reply from the project coordinator Bill Kite inviting me to join the project in Ladakh. After this first email I already had a feeling that this would turn into something really good and decided to book my flight up to Ladakh. A few months later I found myself at more than 3500m above sea level in the Himalayas with spectacular mountain views. The following weeks would become some of the most unforgettable memories of my life. In this remote area there are almost no dentists and the people have to endure many hardships, especially during the long and cold winters. If you’re unlucky the dental pain suddenly starts in the winter time when some of the roads are inaccessible and it might take months before you have the possibility to receive dental treatment and relief from the pain. I especially have fond memories of the smiles of the friendly Ladakhi people, strangers and new friends, and the sound of the happy greeting “Julley!” everywhere in the markets, the schools and the monasteries. Like all other volunteers, I stayed in the house of the school nurse, Yangchan Dolma, and had dinner with her family every evening. Their warm welcome and great hospitality made me feel like a part of their family.
Almost every day I would go to the Lamdon school to work in the clinic. The children are always super brave during the dental treatments and rarely complained. Maybe they will even have a root canal treatment or extraction on their very first visit ever to a dentist but still they will be smiling afterwards. Unlike some of the other places where I worked before and maybe had to compromise in the treatment because of lack of dental equipment, here everything I needed was available including portable X-ray facilities so I could do the same quality of treatments as in Sweden. I was very pleased and inspired when Bill offered me the opportunity to return the next year and serve as the resident dentist for the clinic.
In March 2014, I returned and spent nearly 8 months in Ladakh working together with so many volunteers from different parts of the world united with the same strong desire to do good work and help the countless numbers of patients suffering from dental pain. We shared so many happy memories and laughter in the clinic and fun evenings together in Yangchan’s house. I’ve made friends for life, not only in Ladakh but all over the world. Being in Ladakh has taught me so much, not only in the dental field but also about the unconditional kindness of people, volunteers as well as locals. After finishing from a long day in the clinic I wouldn’t feel tired, just the happiness of giving someone relief from a long ordeal of unbearable dental pain or just the great satisfaction of giving someone with badly decayed front teeth their smile and confidence back. I’ve been to many other countries but there is something special about Ladakh and I know that this is a place that I will always come back to. I returned to Ladakh again in 2015 and 2016 and continued working with The Himalayan Dental Project toward our ambitious goal of providing dental care for every person of this splendid Himalayan region free of charge.
If you have the chance, come to Ladakh! I’m sure that just like me, you will have an unforgettable experience where you can work toward what you initially became a dentist for – to be able to help people in real need. I look forward to meeting and working with you and sharing the extraordinary experience that is Ladakh and wonderful people who call it home.
Dr Marie Nordstrom