Dr. Alison Han in Nepal
Dr. Alison Han and her husband, AC Sherpa, first started performing volunteer dentistry in Nepal in 2006. The pair had given back often here in the states — Han’s church organized events utilizing the Medical Team International dental vans, and she participated in other free dental day events, but she wanted to do more. As an immigrant — Han and her family left China for Canada in 1983, when she was seven — she often wondered how the poor fared in places like China and Nepal. “I have a lot of that in my heart — I was always grateful that I ended up in a country where I had many opportunities, and was able to learn and become a dentist,” she says, “And I knew that one day I would give back— but it didn’t necessarily have to be in China.” Sherpa, too, had emigrated — from Nepal in 1987, and knew the villages in the Eastern Himalayas well — and that the need was great there.
And so it was in 2006 that they made the first of three trips to date to the region Sherpa grew up in — bringing dentistry to three villages. There are about 11,000 people in all three, and locals still live a feudal lifestyle, farming on land they lease from landlords, paying their rent in crops. In fact, few residents have currency because they so rarely have a need for it. There are no cars, no refrigeration, and until Han and her husband helped bring electricity to them, there was no power. Sherpa says, “Nepal is divided into 14 zones, similar to our states, and 75 districts, and each district has 34 villages. The districts have electricity, but many of the villages do not.” Food comes from farmers, the forest or the local butcher, who slaughters only once a week. Although there is a district hospital, it can be two days walk from the remote villages, and it’s not unheard of for the sick to die in transit. Most medical needs are attended to by village Shaman with no medical or dental training.
Their work in the villages will be familiar to dentists who have volunteered oversees — with many patients and little time, extractions are the standard of care. Still, getting patients out of pain is a huge victory. When there, Han works 4-6 days, often clocking 11 hours a day, performing hundreds of extractions per visit. Most of the time, she is the sole dentist, but she usually has midwives or the local denturist assisting her. “He’s fascinated with the way we numb patients to prepare them for the extraction,” says Han. She’s also worked with hospital physicians, explaining that technique is more important than force when extracting teeth, teaching them how to make patients more comfortable and the importance of removing all the root fragments. Still, there is much work to be done. Like so many poor nations, it is difficult to convince native dentists to practice in remote areas — they want the best for their families, and that typically means life in a city like Kathmandu.
Han and Sherpa are in the process of planning their next outing in August of this year. Sherpa, a professional guide who holds the world record for climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents in the shortest amount of time, hopes to take participants on area hikes while in Nepal. “If we can get enough interest, we’d like to have two groups of dentists volunteering. While one group is performing dentistry, the other can hike.” If you or someone you know is interested in traveling with them and providing dental care in remote Himalayan villages, contact AC at firstname.lastname@example.org.