Pulling Teeth and Saving Lives
An Interview with Dr. Robert Ferrell
Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
That’s quite the lofty expectation to achieve by simply going to another country. But what if your travel abroad could actually change lives? Periodontist and dental surgeon Dr. Robert Ferrell has done just that. For over 20 years, he and his teams of talented dentists and volunteers have traveled to impoverished communities across the globe to offer their skills in immediate healthcare relief, as well as to provide long-lasting healthcare reform.
Meet the Dentist
Dr. Ferrell has been practicing dentistry in South Ogden, Utah, since 1999. According to his practice’s website, he has received extensive training in implant dentistry “with over 10,000 implants placed over his career.” In addition to his regular practice, he serves as the president of the James Ferrell Foundation, a charity that provides dental care to those who are underprivileged in local and foreign communities. Dr. Ferrell works with other organizations such as Days for Girls, which provides menstrual products to help children stay in school during their menstrual cycles. On a trip to Nepal, he and his team also built a well in town, which cut the trip for fresh water from four hours to a few minutes.
Dr. Ferrell has traveled across the globe in pursuit of serving others, including countries in Central and South America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. He hopes to arrange a trip to Cuba for April 2021, should travel restrictions be lifted. The service trips are split between performing dental surgery and providing dental training for local dentists and community members. These trainings can include anything from teaching dentists how to remove teeth to teaching children how to brush their teeth.
On the surgical side of things there’s little room for finesse, and he refers to that part of the job as “bush dentistry.” Most of what he does as a surgeon is remove infected teeth. The tools he uses are also limited. The surgeries are done in rural communities with no electricity, where the doctors wear headlamps for light, use lawn chairs as dental chairs, and can only provide buckets for patients to spit into.
Dental care can be a lifesaving medical procedure in poorer communities and countries. “We’re not just taking teeth out; we’re saving lives,” says Dr. Ferrell. The work is hard, no doubt about it, but the rewards are immeasurable. For these poverty-stricken communities, most dental care consists of someone with no training taking a tooth out with pliers. Access to medication, anesthetic, and bandages creates a massive difference for these people.
Returning home from his trips abroad, Dr. Ferrell is often struck by the contrast between American patients and those he treats in poor communities. People in America complain about going to the dentists, while people abroad bring gifts to show their gratitude for the care. On the occasions where the team performs surgery in areas hostile to Americans, he’s witnessed the community close ranks to protect him and his team in return for the vital medical care they have given to the community. These are the kinds of experiences that make the work worthwhile.
How to Get Involved
Naturally, part of the team that comes with Dr. Ferrell is made up of dental surgeons, assistants, and nurses, but his work has a surprisingly large need for volunteers. He prefers taking young adults and families with teenagers on these trips; he credits the time he spent working with young adults through his church as the reason behind his desire to involve them in his humanitarian work.
One thing Dr. Ferrell looks for in new volunteers is experience helping in their local communities. Before you can apply for the travel abroad programs, he asks that you serve in your community first. Dr. Ferrell’s own work is based heavily in his hometown—he and his family volunteer at local shelters once a month. “I’ve seen things as bad in third-world countries as I have in our own backyard,” Dr. Ferrell says.
He cites another reason for why local service is a prerequisite for joining his team abroad: the arrogance he has witnessed of some Americans who look down on others who have fallen into poverty. “It breaks my heart,” he confides, “when we see people not as people, but as less than.” Developing compassion for those around you is just as important as developing compassion for those abroad.
Dr. Ferrell's team also prepares to go abroad by holding a couple of cultural nights to foster an understanding of their foreign destination, its people, and its people's needs; the team invites those who have lived or visited the destination before to share their knowledge. Dr. Ferrell says that “learning the best [ways] to serve . . . comes from understanding the culture.” He hopes to avoid the mistakes of so-called humanitarians of the past, who would fly in to enjoy the exotic vista and hand out candy and toys in exchange for being entertained.
Of course, there is still time for sightseeing during the trip. Throughout the trip, volunteers get a taste of the local sights, and there’s time reserved at the end for a few days of playing tourist. Volunteers often get to experience the religious culture, like visiting a temple in Nepal or attending a Catholic mass in Guatemala. Dr. Ferrell says he prefers to save the sightseeing for the end of the trip, because by then the volunteers have a totally different perspective on who the local people are. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a much different experience. You just come to love the people after serving them so.”
The best part about volunteering for these trips is that anyone can be qualified. All necessary training is provided before and during the trips. Dr. Ferrell recalled one volunteer who was a retired FBI agent. Dr. Ferrell assigned him to be a screener; the agent looked at people’s teeth, checked for infections, and triaged the patients by picking out the most critical cases for the doctors to see first.
Another volunteer brought suitcases full of nothing but Neosporin and socks on a trip to Mali, Africa. In between his regularly assigned duties for the team, he went around the community and washed people’s feet—the dirty, cracked, injured feet of strangers. It speaks to the love that can be inspired by service, according to Dr. Ferrell. “Who was the most loved on that trip? Him. Who loved the Malians more than anyone else? Him too.”
If you are interested in humanitarian service and traveling abroad, there are many organizations to get involved with. The Academy of LDS Dentists is a national organization that organizes frequent humanitarian trips. Choice Humanitarian will customize trips for your group, whether you're going with family or your business. Both Mentor’s International and Alliance for Hope International provide resources for fulfilling service projects abroad. And, of course, there’s always meaningful service to be found at your local community shelters.
The key thing about volunteers that Dr. Ferrell impressed upon me was this: Encourage people who think they wouldn’t have anything to contribute to go. “A lot of people think they don’t have the skills to help, but boy! That is not true! They are as critical as nurses and doctors and dentists.”
To volunteer with Dr. Ferrell’s organization directly, you can contact their office at +1 801-334-9258 or visit their website at www.drrobertferrell.com.