As a dentist, it has always been the smiles on people’s faces that motivate me. I love helping my patients keep their smiles healthy and bright.
But I never imagined just how deeply moving a patient’s smile could be until my first international dentistry trip. It was in a remote, rural village in Myanmar, looking down at the beaming face of a child, who just moments earlier had come to me sullen in pain and seeking dental care that a smile changed my life.
I was traveling on vacation in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, when I met a dentist from Doctors Without Borders. Upon learning that I too was a dentist, he asked if I’d be willing to join him in a pro bono mission to provide dental services to a rural, island community in Myanmar. I immediately agreed.
For me, providing help was more than just a feel-good volunteer opportunity—it was truly a chance to come full circle and pay my own blessings forward. Growing up in the Ukraine, access to dental care was severely limited. Helping provide expert care in an area where it is otherwise almost impossible to obtain, immediately resonated with me on a deep and personal level.
We arrived by boat to a small island village in southern Myanmar, to a community without access to electricity, let alone fluoridated water, a public health amenity we often don’t think twice about in the United States, but that is critical in helping strengthen teeth and prevent cavities and decay.
That day, under an open-air tent, with chickens running under foot, I saw more than 30 patients, many of whom were just small children. For almost all, this was their first and only exposure to dental care. There were no preventative cleanings; we were mostly applying anesthetic and extracting rotten, infected teeth. Seeing the children, some as young as four and five, light up again after an infected tooth was removed, provided a sense of both fulfillment and gratitude.
Now whenever I travel, I try to tie in a volunteer dentistry component. Last year while traveling in the North Sumatra region of Indonesia, I visited the local hospital in the town of Bukit Lawang. There, like in the small, rural village in Myanmar, there are no specialized dentists; I consulted alongside the one local doctor, who is responsible for treating everything from patients’ common colds to broken bones and other more severe injuries and illnesses. I advised on oral hygiene education, diagnoses and treatments, aiming to further empower the doctor as he cared for his community.
And I recently signed up with International Medical Relief (IMR), a registered 501(c)(3) medical organization with NGO status that provides mobile medical clinics and sustainable health education to underserved communities in 40 countries around the world. Next summer, I will be traveling with IMR to Rwanda in East Africa, alongside fellow volunteer dentists and hygienists, to work from sun-up to sundown in mobile dental clinics in communities across the country. Oral hygiene is a much-needed service, as it can directly improve the overall health of these communities. I am honored to be a part of this mission. I’ve been indelibly marked by these experiences and the people I’ve met along the way, and hope to leave as lasting of an impact on them and their communities.
Tatyana Pihur DMD is a dentist at Skyline Dental Studio in San Francisco, California. Growing up in the Ukraine, she moved to the United States at the age 14. She attended the University of Louisville School of Dentistry in Kentucky and moved to San Francisco to open her own practice. She has done pro bono dental work in Asia and Africa, as well as in her home community of San Francisco. For more posts from Dr. Pihur, follow: https://skylinedentalstudio.com/blog/