Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Privilege to Give

I was talking to my father-in-law the other day, a retired world-renowned plant breeder and geneticist at the University of Minnesota for 30 years.  It has been 15 years now since he has been active in his field, and I jokingly asked if they have been able to do without him.  We reviewed his career, and I asked about China, where he had spent many years trying to create a scientific plant-breeding program to help conquer their hunger problems.  He said the results there have been outstanding. 

He said they brought all of the “germ-plasma” from Minnesota to jump-start their breeding program, and the results were fantastic.  Food yields were astounding, and the result is that they have become able to feed their population better than ever before.  Their hard work won scientific achievements that were freely and gladly given away for the good of mankind. 

What a great example this is, showing how professionals in the United States, after so much hard work gaining the abilities, knowledge, and material wherewithal to excel in their chosen fields, make the choice to turn those resources to helping others.

As I thought about this tradition and this legacy, I did not have to look very far to see the continuum right here in my own backyard.  Here “on the home front”, my mind was fresh with the joys and success of the first Minnesota Mission of Mercy we recently held in Mankato, headed up by Alejandro M. Aguirre.  I began to run the list, knowing even as I did that there would never be an end mark to it.

There is SPDDS’s Vacharee Peterson, who has sacrificed to set up a huge dental clinic in Saint Paul to serve the low income segment of our population.

There is the Northwestern District’s indefatigable John Lueth, who set up a clinic for the same purpose in northern Minnesota.

Saint Paul has a long, long list of the volunteers who keep the Union Gospel Mission not only viable but evolving.

There is our current president, Rose Perpich, who set up a second office specifically for low income and elderly patients.  These are only a few of many…

Years ago I got frustrated with the red tape and limitations of the state programs, and luckily discovered DDS (Donated Dental Services), where underserved patients facing any of the barriers to care we have been working to identify for the politicians and public at large were screened and sent to dentists who wished to donate their services to truly needy individuals.  With Donated Dental Services, I can do the exact same dentistry for these patients with no need to either report or collect from the state.  Well, that is just my style.

I also have “adopted” several teenage patients who need massive amounts of treatment they cannot afford.  One, a young man, suffers from ectodermal dysplasia (sparse hair, and only root tips that are mostly submerged as for teeth).  It is a real challenge to restore his teeth rather than doing the mass extractions and dentures at age 12 that everyone else had suggested.  I am also treating another young man.  He has leukemia, which came with 19 million dollars in medical costs by age 16.  He has no dental coverage.  Slowly we have brought both of these young men to adulthood with surprising success.  However, the challenges will continue with them for each of their lifetimes.

Our dental generosity does not just stop in our state or with our nation, but goes overseas to places such as Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, and many, many more.  My daughter, who is on the board of a charity for Haiti, has put me to work doing dentistry for the 100 orphans there.  What a challenge to get equipment sufficient to do modern dentistry in a country which has such infrastructure problems.  Electricity, clean water, compressed air, sewage, sanitary conditions!  I just sent down some air compressors and shop vacs in a container that will take six months to get there, get through customs, and get to our space.  I know there are many other individuals who have done this, and so am in search of someone who has the expertise in third world dentistry. 

The goal of these efforts has never been fame or fortune.  It is the kindly expression of gratitude for our fortunate circumstances and the great satisfaction in helping those who truly cannot help themselves.

Every dentist I know does “charity” work in his or her own way, some with helping patients in need, and many with outright gifts.

We don’t trumpet our contributions, for that is not the goal, but our anonymous giving has some unintended negative consequences.  

As a dentist who is active in legislative affairs, it is surprising that many view us with contempt as selfish and greedy as a profession.  It has been frustrating to try to counteract that viewpoint.  We as dentists know that perception is inaccurate, but despite our efforts, the stigma persists. 

With our elections coming up, new legislators will be added to government service.  We need to take time to get to know them personally and be a resource when they have dental questions, for all but a few are ill-prepared to make any informed decision on health care matters, especially dentistry.

We are a generous nation.  The great ingenuity of Americans has helped in many corners of this world.  We are a generous profession.  We deserve to be pleased with our contributions, even as we are, as I do know we are, grateful we have time and talents of value to give.                                                                                                                    

 Dr. Z

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