Dr. Ward and family find blessings in dental mission to Zambia

Dr. Ward and family find blessings in dental mission to Zambia

Jonathan Ward is surrounded by children – whose happiness and joy are clearly visible – at the Tree of Life Children’s Village.

WOONSOCKET – A few weeks after returning from his first dental mission to Zambia, Woonsocket dentist Dr. David Ward is already envisioning his next trip.

Ward, his son Jonathan, 26, and his younger daughter Alexandra, 22, traveled to Zambia between April 19 and April 29, with Project Smilewell co-founders Dr. Bill Papadopoulos (Ward’s classmate at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine) and Papadopoulos’ wife, Dr. Pilar Sanchez.

Project Smilewell, a nonprofit entity in Brookline, Mass., provides dental care to those in need locally, nationally, and internationally.

Though team members anticipated treating children at the Tree of Life Children’s Village, an orphanage outside of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, the medical director there requested they prescreen the children’s oral health to determine urgency of care.

Orphans and children whose parents can’t care for them live at the Tree of Life Children’s Village, which is run by Family Legacy, a Texas-based Christian nonprofit organization. Each of the modest stone houses built within the walled compound is home to two foster mothers and 10 or so children, said Jonathan Ward. Before this mission, no dentist had ever cared for children at the village, which now has a new medical-dental clinic.

David Ward, who has his practice at 460 South Main St., in Woonsocket, said his vision is to teach the 750 children in the village through yearly or semi-annual visits, to take care of their own teeth. Once children are taught at the clinic, they can do more care themselves.

During their three days at the orphanage, the Wards saw children ages 3 to 19. Levels of oral health varied widely; some children had perfect teeth and gums, and others had cavities, tartar and the beginnings of gum disease. None of the children knew what dental floss was, said Alexandra Ward, a former dental assistant in her father’s practice now studying for dental school entrance exams. Those on the mission distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste to the orphanage, but didn’t realize before they went the extent of the need, said Alexandra, who taught groups of children and their foster mothers effective tooth-brushing.

All of the children, many of whom had HIV or AIDS, expressed gratitude.

“Every single child would walk in and say, ‘Thank you; I am blessed,’” said Jonathan, a lab technician in his father’s dental practice. “You could tell that they were happy and appreciated that we could help them.”

The medical director and nurses at Tree of Life spoke English and interpreted for the team of volunteers, but they learned how to say “open” and “close” in the local dialect, Jonathan said. When they traveled 50 miles to work at a mobile clinic, a whole different dialect was spoken. There, Dr. JoyJoy Falia, a dentist from Bangladesh who staffs the mobile clinic, and a volunteer translator helped overcome language hurdles.

In a town called Kafue, their second assignment was at Riverside Farm Institute, which grows bananas and other crops. A traveling mobile clinic, with two dental chairs and basic equipment, was set up for the team.

“Just to get to our clinic, old people would walk two hours,” said Jonathan. “They depend on this sort of outreach treatment to take care of their needs on a yearly basis. They go wherever they can to get themselves out of pain.”

It was hard to turn away some of the people who had walked for hours to the mobile clinic and waited all day to be seen, said Alexandra, who assisted the dentists.

“Next time, we hope to see even more patients with a bigger team,” she said, adding that the team mostly did extractions to relieve people’s pain. The team treated about 100 people over three days.

When a patient with badly broken or severely decayed teeth simply pointed to the tooth causing the most pain, Dr. Ward pulled it, a procedure typically done in the U.S. by an oral surgeon.

Ward, the son of a dentist himself, said he may have benefited more than the patients.

“They got the dentistry, but I got the experience of seeing the challenges they face … and yet, they all say they’re happy and blessed,” he said. Not one patient Ward “stuck with a needle” complained of pain or made a sound.

Enduring tough travel, a series of vaccines, and other challenges, Ward said that his own children never complained. He said he was proud of how they took charge. Ward’s elder daughter, Samantha, a dental student, couldn’t participate in the mission.

Philanthropy is nothing new for Ward, a board member of the Rhode Island Oral Health Foundation, which funds the Mission of Mercy in Rhode Island connecting people who can’t afford dental care with dentists. He and his family sponsor two children through Children International.

“Dentists have a similar personality type – we want to help people,” Ward said. To fund their trip to Zambia, the family raised approximately $3,500 through a GoFundMe campaign, which paid for travel and dental supplies and equipment they left in Zambia. Ward donated additional equipment to the mobile clinic.

For more on Smilewell, with its tag line “A smile is the first step to hope,” visit www.projectsmilewell.org .

Dr. David Ward kneels and gestures to a young boy at the Tree of Life Children’s Village.
Dr. JoyJoy Falia treats a patient at Riverside Farm Institute.