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Dentist's patients 'open wide' all around the world

Dr. Greg Williams takes annual humanitarian trip abroad
by: Barbara Sherman ALL IN A DAY’S WORK – Dr. Greg Williams, assisted by Charissa Griffith, treats a patient under primitive conditions while on a medical mission in Western Samoa in March.

Dr. Greg Williams is just as much at home working in his state-of-the-art King City dental office as he is in primitive conditions in third-world countries around the world.

Williams, a Sherwood resident, is now in his 13th year in his King City office, which he opened after graduating from dental school, and he returned from a humanitarian mission to Western Samoa on March 27.

Williams has been making annual humanitarian trips since 2005, starting with Peru on a mission affiliated with Southern Cross Humanitarian.

In 2006, Williams and his longtime friend, Dr. Scott Dyer, a prosthodontist in Tualatin, went back to Peru with Southern Cross.

In 2007, they formed their own non-profit organization, Wide Open Humanitarian, and got a lot of advice from Tigard-based Medical Teams International.

As for the goals of Wide Open Humanitarian, Williams said he and Dyer, whose work as a prosthodontist includes crowns, bridges and implants, concentrate on the "poorest of the poor who have the highest economic or geographic barriers to getting medical care."

Another goal is to inspire other dentists and dental students to participate in humanitarian missions as a way of giving back.

Thirdly, dentists with Wide Open Humanitarian work alongside dentists in the countries they visit to provide additional training and help them to expand their outreach work.

"We choose countries with a critical need that also can provide ground support - a local person familiar with such issues in the area as transportation and acquiring safe food and water plus the ability to let the local villagers know we are coming," Williams said.

"We went to Guatemala in 2009 and 2010, and we went to Western Samoa before in 2008," Williams said.

He first became interested in going to Western Samoa when he extracted a tooth from a patient from that country and talked to him about the conditions there.

"In the U.S., the ratio of dentists to people is one to 1,500,' Williams said. 'I learned that in Western Samoa, it is one to 40,000, and all the dentists are in one city.

"I said to my patient, 'If you help us and come to translate, we will go.'"

The size of the team varies each year, and everyone pays his or her own way.

"Fifteen was the smallest, and 29 was the largest, which was our last trip," Williams said. "The last trip had eight dentists from Oregon plus two dental students. We have gone with as few as two dentists.

"For every dentist, we have a dental hygienist, a dental assistant and someone to sterilize the equipment plus we need someone to coordinate everything. All skills are needed on our teams.'

When Williams and Dyer first started making the humanitarian trips, they recruited people for teams by sending mass emails.

"Now people send applications, and we have more who want to go than we can use," Williams said. "And we have some portable equipment."

Team members' check-in baggage is filled with supplies and equipment when the leave the U.S.

The teams use battery- or solar-powered equipment that is specifically designed for use when electricity is not available, said Williams, adding, "Sometimes we use generators."

And of course, the teams must work without the luxury of patients being treated in reclining dental chairs.

"A lot of the time, we are standing up, and the patients sit in chairs," Williams said.

When doing humanitarian work, teams concentrate on basic dental work such as extractions and filling cavities,' he said.

"We don't do heroic restorations. We try to treat more people with fewer extensive procedures.

"If we go into a room of villagers and ask how many have a toothache, 75 percent will raise their hands. Some of the people we see come in with no shoes, and they have chronic tooth pain and festering infections."

While the team doesn't have diagnostic equipment like X-rays, "it doesn't take X-rays or rocket science to diagnose the problems," Williams said.

In Western Samoa, the team treated 1,000 to 1,200 in six full or partial days, according to said Williams.

"One day, we saw 450 patients," he said. "We do what we can do. One growing concern issue in Western Samoa and other countries around the world is the Western influence coming in - there is more sugar and soda in the diet, leading to more tooth decay."

Williams said he has mixed feelings about how much work gets accomplished and yet how much is left undone when he visits a country.

"Everyone is satisfied with the work we provide, and we know some patients sleep better," he said. "However, it is frustrating not to be able to fix everything."

Williams and Dyer are already planning their next two trips.

"I plan to do one treatment trip a year, and we will be going in the summer of 2012," Williams said.

He also does humanitarian work right here at home.

"We do a clinic in Washington County," he said. "We call schools and work with counselors. We try to do what we can, and it's very rewarding work. It keeps me grounded.

"Humanitarian dentistry is something I always planned to do, but I thought I would do it later in my career or after I retired. I decided that one, the future is unpredictable, and two, I was influenced by my patients who had done humanitarian work instead of a summer vacation. It made an impact on me.

"I've taken some of my kids along on these trips. The trips provide a great lesson for kids - we all have an obligation to share our skills and talents."

Williams said that Wide Open Humanitarian gets its supplies and labor donated, "so our administrative costs are almost zero."

He added, "Any money donated goes to supplies or to help people. There are no salaries - no one gets paid in this organization."

For more information, visit www.wideopenhumanitarian.com.