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My First Overseas Dental Mission

"The Sri Lankan people are a beautiful lot ─ they are so soft spoken and full of grace and gratitude. It was such a pleasure to have this opportunity to serve them and to learn about humility."

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Dr. Rosalind Ho (right) with volunteer Mdm. Zeena (left). (Photo provided by Dr. Rosalind Ho)

"The Sri Lankan people are a beautiful lot ─ they are so soft spoken and full of grace and gratitude. It was such a pleasure to have this opportunity to serve them and to learn about humility.

I joined a medical mission trip (organized by Tzu Chi Singapore) to Sri Lanka from 28 May to 1 June, 2015. It was the first overseas dental mission I had participated and my first trip to Hambantota in Sri Lanka. In March, 2015, I attended the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) Conference (Singapore) at The Matrix@Biopolis, on the invitation of Dr. Eugene Tang, a veteran dentist who is a friend of mine. It was there that I came to know more about Tzu Chi and the humanitarian services it provides to those in need around the world.

Over ten years ago on 26 December, 2004, a strong earthquake of magnitude 9.1 struck off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, which triggered a massive tsunami that swept away entire communities in countries around the Indian Ocean. Hambantota, an underdeveloped coastal town located in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka, was greatly devastated and a large proportion of the town’s people were killed in the disaster.

During the TIMA medical mission, I met at least two survivors who had lost their spouses and other family members in the tsunami. It was heart wrenching to listen to their ordeals. One gentleman shared that he was able to survive because he had clung to the branches of a tree as the water surged through the town. ( He later showed us where the tree was). But he never found his family members. My interpreter, Zeena, revealed that she had lost her children and her husband in the tsunami and is now living alone.

The Peacock Hotel, where the medical team and volunteers from Singapore stayed, faces the Indian Ocean. The tsunami had surged in and taken the lives of 20 hotel staff members before moving further inland, causing massive destruction and killing thousands more. One hotel staff member told us that in the aftermath, there were cars stuck in the trees, which roughly indicated how high the seawater had risen.

Today, the hotel has been renewed; new residential quarters could be seen as our coach advanced along the road leading to the hotel entrance.

I was quite impressed with the way things were organised at the venue of the medical mission. Considering that there were more than a hundred participants in this mission, the logistics involved were significant. But everything was quite smooth-going, which was no mean feat. I attributed this to a good leadership and great team effort.

On the dental side, the protocol went smoothly, from registration to settling the patients on the dental chairs and extraction tables. We were not short of dental instruments, such as dental forceps, needles, or dental materials. The dental chairs had high speed handpieces, suction motors, and even a spittoon. Such ingenuity! And the sterilization team was immaculate in their cleaning.

The Sri Lankan people are a beautiful lot ─ they were so soft spoken and full of grace and gratitude. It was such a pleasure to have this opportunity to serve them and to learn about humility. Though there were difficult moments with the children who were naturally frightened by the ordeal (the dental treatment), they and their parents were happy and relieved when it was over. It was a great feeling to be able to help relieve the pain and suffering of patients with dental problems (toothache can be quite tormenting). During the two-and-a-half-day mission, 570 dental patients were treated, and we all felt elated at our team's achievement.

To me, this dental mission is a very meaningful one. Away from the motive of money making, I am sure many of us would feel somewhat spiritually purified to be doing something good for the sake of humanity. In addition, we formed friendships, and there was a great sense of camaraderie among the team members.

When we returned to the hotel at the end of each busy day, we were rewarded by the beautiful sunset, and as we partake of the food that was provided for us, we could hear the rolling waves of the ocean. I was even more enthralled by the mesmerizing sunrise view from the hotel at dawn. My comrades and I would have our breakfast together in the hotel restaurant before setting off for another great day at the “dental clinic”.

But I would never forget the potential destruction wrought by a tsunami (as I have learned from some of those affected), nor the sadness I had witnessed in the eyes of the survivors as they relived their stories. I pray that such a devastating disaster would never ever happen again.

The medical outreach conducted by the Singapore medical team has achieved not only the aim of reducing human suffering for the people of Sri Lanka but also improved the relations between the two countries. What more can I say? That my life has taken on another meaning, with much significance and joy. This is what only a volunteer can experience.

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