Saturday, May 25

Mercy Ships mission to provide dental care


Dr Loo works on a patient, with a dental assistant, at the dental clinic.

A MAN suffering from a toothache once moaned: “If a genie would take away this throbbing pain of mine in exchange for a 100-mile run, I would choose to run.”

That’s an indication of how torturous a toothache can be — besides the various forms of wreckage bad teeth can bring on a person’s life.

People eat to live, and to be able to eat properly, they need a set of good strong teeth — which is why it’s very important to look after our dental health.

But there are many people, especially the poor living in remote places, who do not have the opportunity to learn about oral hygiene or to access dental care.

A young dentist, Dr Loo Zia Yew, who came to realise this sad state of affairs, felt it was time to do something about it.

Dr Loo, a Sarawakian, has lived in New Zealand for some 10 years.

Dr Loo Zia Yew

After working for two years or so at Te Hiku Hauora’s dental clinic in the Far North District town of Kaitaia, he decided to embark on a global mission to provide dental care to people who needed it but couldn’t afford it or who never even had the chance to have a dental checkup.

He has, thus, found himself on a mercy-ship cruise most of the time this year.

Dr Loo has been to places like Vanuatu, Mexico, the Caribbean and West Africa, reaching out to people who cannot get dental care or who find the cost prohibitive.

Most recently, he was on board the 16,000-tonne Africa Mercy, the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, operated by Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO Mercy Ships, which docked in Guinea, West Africa.

The crew provided free surgical, dental and healthcare services to one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The hospital takes up most of the original rail deck — about 1,200 square metres — and is divided into quadrants, comprising supply-services, five operating rooms, a four-bed recovery, intensive care unit for up to five individuals and 80 ward beds.

The volunteer crew perform free surgical procedures on board, including for cataract removal-lens implants, tumor removal, cleft lip and palate reconstruction, orthopedics (clubfoot and bowed legs), women’s health (including obstetric fistula repair), plastic, and general surgeries as well as some ambulatory day surgery.

The hospital is equipped with a CT scanner, X-ray and laboratory services which support the surgical services.


Dr Loo’s memorable moments with the children during his visit to their village.

Facial swellings

Dr Loo said the team would see patients with enormous facial swellings that would never have been allowed to progress that far in first world countries.

Due to lack of access to antibiotics, a dental abscess from an infected tooth could well be a death sentence in far-flung countries like Guinea.

Dr Loo was especially troubled to see one horrible disease that is quite common in the West African country — ‘noma’ or the cancrum oris, an acute and ravaging gangrenous infection of the face.

Noma victims are mainly children caught in a vicious circle of abject poverty and chronic malnutrition.

They suffer unimaginable pain, discomfort and social exclusion from their communities.

Dr Loo pointed out that the progression of the disease could be simply halted with the use of antibiotics but most of the victims do not have easy access to the drug.

The medics worked in operating theatres on board Africa Mercy but Dr Loo and the dental team used a local clinic that Mercy Ships had renovated.

Dr Loo with residents from a village in Guinea.

Long days in hot conditions made for tiring work but Dr Loo said his time had been well spent, including the many memorable experiences outside the clinic.

He derived a lot of joy from spending time with the children at Hope Village, making crafts, singing and sharing meals with the youngsters.

He was particularly touched by the children greeting the team with a dance and song the moment the latter pulled into the driveway.

“They have practised hard just for us,” he said.


Goodwill of volunteers

According to Dr Loo, Africa Mercy operates on the goodwill of volunteers who offer their time and skills to help people in need. People from many nations and different cultures and languages work together for a common humanitarian cause.

He said he was greatly encouraged to see people from diverse backgrounds working together for the common good.

Many of them, he noted, had spent many years away from home, foregoing a stable income and the comforts of life.

“I’m inspired as well as humbled to see these dedicated individuals choosing to do what can be described counterintuitive. Success to this devoted group is very different from what the rest of the world think.”

Dr Loo and his team with children in an African village.

The crew include people from different faiths, socio-economic backgrounds, race, age and gender.

Dr Loo said he could see a truly beautiful picture from this unity in diversity to do good for humanity.

To him, it’s a manifestation of what people can achieve if they set aside their differences and share a common vision for the greater good.

He said he felt privileged in having volunteered to join the Mercy Ships mission as it allowed him to get to know people around the world, adding that he enjoyed working and living on board such well-equipped vessels.

Next mission

On his next mission, Dr Loo said he would be working as an army dentist with the New Zealand military in January next year.

He felt this would give him the opportunity to do community dentistry and gain more exposure and experience.

He will be deployed overseas to help designated countries achieve some of their health goals.

The group will be visiting villages with limited oral health services or no such facilities at all.


Coming to NZ

Dr Loo said he came to New Zealand when he was only 16 and has been living there ever since.

He revealed he always returned to Kuching during New Zealand’s summer because his family is here and he also misses the local food.

He said he has no regrets becoming a dentist, adding that it was the challenges of the job that made it such a rewarding profession.

He hoped more people would take up dentistry and also volunteer their time to provide dental care for the needy.

Dr Loo embracing his ‘inner kid’ while playing with the children.

He said they would get a sense of satisfaction from volunteering, knowing what they were doing could make a difference to people’s lives.

Dr Loo is happy to share more of his experiences working with Africa Mercy with anyone interested. He can be reached at [email protected]