“Open your mouth – Ka-Ter-Arinna
Close your mouth – Ka-Ter-Wahanna
Bite – Ha-Panna
Pain – Ree-Day-Nawada
Teeth Extraction – Dath Galawanna
Teeth Filling – Dath Purawanna”
A simple list of translation of key words in dental treatment from English into the local language, Singhalese, was pasted on the wall of the free clinic.
After having extracted teeth from the children, the dentists would press cotton balls on the wounds and with a quick glance at the list on the wall, say softly to the children, “Ha-Panna”.
Language barrier has been a big challenge while running the free clinic. Although in the current large scale free clinic conducted in Sri Lanka (the fifth) from Oct 14 to 16 many local translators were engaged to provide assistance, it still helped a lot if the medical personnel from Singapore and Malaysia could speak a few key words in the local language.
In a typical small Sri Lankan town, extracting a tooth costs 500 rupees (about S$6) and filling one costs 1000 rupees (about S$12) at a private clinic. At clinics in bigger towns, it will cost 1000 rupees and 2000 to 3000 rupees (about S$25 to S$35), respectively. And most people have more faith in dentists in bigger towns, believing that they use better material to fill cavities in teeth hence making the filling more lasting.
Having much confidence in the Tzu Chi dental team, villagers from the Atulugama Village which is five kilometres away from capital Colombo were very much delighted upon hearing the arrival of the dental team from Singapore.
Atulugama is a Muslim village poorly equipped with medical facilities, and as the villagers like to chew betel nuts, tooth decay is prevalent among them. Since it was a Sunday and there was no school, the villagers came in hordes with their children to the Tzu Chi free clinic operating at the Bandaragama District Hospital.
7-year-old Abdullah, who came with his mother and younger sister, had only visited dentist once since he was born. The moment he opened his mouth to talk, one could see clearly cavities in two of his upper incisors. Like Abdullah, many other children in Atulugama have the same problem.
Oral hygiene is normally overlooked by children from poor villages and many of the local households rely on the biannual dental clinic to solve their dental problems. This time round, the dental team provided services to 557 patients, which is the second highest number of patients treated next to those taken care of under the internal medicine team. All in all, around 2500 dental patients have benefited from the five free clinics conducted by Tzu Chi Singapore in Sri Lanka thus far.
The convener of TIMA Singapore's dental team Dr Eugene Tang has participated in every of the five free clinics over the last three years. Dr Tang led the dental team and took pain to overcome all challenges that cropped up along the way. The dental team has also grown from a team of three to four dentists to nine for this free clinic.
While waiting to leave for Sri Lanka at the Singapore Changi Airport, Dr Tang especially reminded his team members to project a professional image. “Please button your shirt up properly and tuck it in your pants,” he would say in a warm tone; his words of reminder showed just how seriously he took of every free clinic.
Dr Tang also declared that he is now "addicted" to the free clinic mission. It is one that is above monetary gains and stresses on direct and sincere interactions between patient and doctor, hence a very meaningful and satisfying endeavour for him. Though a Christian himself, he runs the free clinic to his utmost all the same.
He feels that conducting free clinic is a common goal for all who care to give their love to the needy, and he hopes that Christians would not shun away from participating and contributing just because Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization.
Dr Tang's long time assistant, Ms Jennifer Ee, has never missed the Sri Lanka free clinics once too. She shared from her experience, “We encountered different challenges for every free clinic, ranging from soliciting dentists to participate to helping answer all types of queries before we made the trip. For this free clinic, only two candidates signed up as dental assistants. We are fortunate that many Tzu Chi volunteers are willing to learn to be one and help solve our manpower shortage problem.”
Experience acquired from the free clinic also makes Ms Ee cherish what she has even more now. She noticed that each child in Sri Lanka has only one pair of shoes, whereas in Singapore it is common for a kid to own four to five pairs of shoes.
“We could only do so little for the locals here but their gratitude towards us is so earnest that I really do not think I deserve it.” She recounted that at the free clinic, a dentist gave priority to a lady who is five-month pregnant and filled her tooth first. At the completion of the treatment, the little boy who came with the lady immediately went down on his knees to thank the medics. Everyone present was truly astonished.
Having participated in the Tzu Chi-led free clinic many years back in Batam, Indonesia, Dr Ong Chin Kian can be considered a veteran in the dental mission. To him, the most valuable thing he has learnt from the free clinics is to appreciate how blessed he is. "At the free clinic patients do not have to pay a cent, but the doctors treat them all the same, motivated solely by their heartfelt sense of achievement."
Dr Ong found himself lucky that he could "learn from the patients and be humble". Seeing how the Sri Lankans lined up and waited for their turn without making any complaints, he felt that he still has much to learn in walking the Bodhisattva path when he recalled how he had felt a sense of superiority when he first donned the white uniform of TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association). Dr Ong indicated that he has to put in more efforts to practice the philosophy of Tzu Chi and better himself to be an example for others to follow.
A strenuous two-and-a-half day free clinic left the young Dr Albert Lee physically exhausted but spiritually satisfying. Partaking in the free clinic for the first time, he said he was taken aback at first discovering the huge number of patients but the free clinic was a breeze for the medical professionals; especially since equipments had already been set up way before the arrival of the team so they could start work immediately.
To the young dentist, being there at the free clinic and listening to the life experience of the senior doctors has been a truly rewarding experience for him.