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Reaping the Rewards of Giving

by Sheila Smith Noonan

While an attending at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J., Dr. Robert Wong ('77) learned of a pediatric patient who needed dental work prior to surgery. "There's only one problem," he was told. "There's no reimbursement."

"It shouldn't be a problem," Dr. Wong said, as he went to meet the child: a three-year-old girl from Guatemala with eyes the size of half-dollars, a cleft lip and palate, and a mouth full of decayed teeth. "How can I not help her?," he asked.

That was the beginning of Dr. Wong's volunteer work for Healing the Children, a national, grassroots organization that provides healthcare to underprivileged children, many of them from Third World countries. Seventeen years later, he participates in its stateside program, where children come to his office for free dental care; a stateside foreign program, in which youngsters from other countries come to America for medical treatment they can't receive at home; and an international program. He is also a member of a Healing the Children Midlantic Chapter committee that decides what foreign trips to make each year and the treasurer of a separate foundation, Friends of Healing the Children.
As part of the international program, Dr. Wong has volunteered his services to the Dominican Republic five times, and a sixth trip is planned for April. The week-long trips are a two- way street. The American teams of healthcare specialists, including plastic surgeons, ophthalmologists, urologists, nurses, auxiliaries, and dentists, pay for their airfare, bring their own supplies, and donate their services. The host country provides food, housing, and facilities. But because of the Dominican Republic's fluctuating political climate and its overwhelming poverty, says Dr. Wong, the teams assume nothing; promises made are rarely kept. One certainty, however, is that there will be plenty of pediatric patients.

"The trips are very exhausting," says Dr. Wong. "As soon as we get there, it's work. Ten- to-12 hour work days are the norm." Dr. Mary Flanagan, an NJDS post-graduate student in pedodontics who accompanied Dr. Wong on last year's trip, agrees. "I kept thinking, 'If we don't get to these kids, they won't be seen until next year and will probably lose some teeth.' So we pushed on." The numbers vary, but typically, about 800 children are screened and between 200 and 300 are treated in a trip.
Each trip is different. During Dr. Wong's first visit, he worked in the countryside, where people lived in tin shacks and there were no facilities whatsoever. Children at a school in the city of La Romana fared better, as there are more well-to-do people committed to helping them. Still, those children usually don't have toothbrushes at home; five times a week, they're able to brush their teeth at school with brushes left for them by Healing the Children, says Dr. Flanagan.

Dr. Wong's work with Healing the Children is his way of giving back. "I have a healthy family, but when problems have come up, I've had the opportunity to take care of them. Things might have been so different if God said, 'I don't want you here, I want you there,'" he says.

And then there are the intangible rewards. Dr. Wong remembers a three-year-old Dominican girl with severe tooth decay; she constantly cried and was completely unmanageable. The only way to treat her was under general anesthesia, enabling Dr. Wong to remove several teeth. The next year, a smiling four-year-old was brought to him. "She was completely different. She was eating well and had grown so much, but most of all, she wasn't in pain. Someone asked me, 'Wasn't it worth it?' I answered, 'You bet.'"

At home, Dr. Wong's general practice in Teaneck, N.J., is strongly family focused; between 30 percent and 40 percent of his patients are children. "My interest in treating children began at New Jersey Dental School, which has such a big pedodontic program," he says. "It gave me tremendous training in how to work with children. Many of the techniques I learned then I still use today."

When Dr. Wong goes back to the Dominican Republic for a sixth time next month, he will be at a rural area hit hard by Hurricane Georges. He does not expect to find many of the tin shack homes standing. Because these children won't be brought to a city for treatment, he hopes to secure some mobile units the team can take to the field.

Dr. Wong has hope, but he is primarily a realist. "These children probably don't have much of a shot at life," he says. "There is no upward movement. The only time they get dental care is when we provide it. Children don't have options. Adults do."

"It shouldn't be a problem," Dr. Wong said, as he went to meet the child: a three-year-old girl from Guatemala with eyes the size of half-dollars, a cleft lip and palate, and a mouth full of decayed teeth. "How can I not help her?," he asked.

How to Help:
Donations of dental supplies of any kind are needed by Healing the Children. Send them to:
Dr. Robert Wong, 741 Teaneck Road, Teaneck, N.J. 07666, or call his office at (201) 837-9865 for more information.
Interested in becoming a Healing the Children volunteer? Contact Dr. Wong for details.

 

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