The first time I ever went on a mission trip, I was a twenty-year old marketing major who had spent the last few semesters of business school watching my friends go off into corporate internships. With a growing sense of unease that that life was not for me, I answered a call of adventure and joined a mission team going to an orphanage in Sierra Leone, West Africa. What I found there was more fulfilling than any adventure I could have anticipated: I found the power of servitude.
Already planning what kind of course correction I could make for my career so that I could help more people in need, I watched as the children in the orphanage ran around showing off their bright, clean smiles after we had given them a demonstration on how to brush their teeth. It was at that moment that I realized that as a dentist, I could be empowered to return to countries like Sierra Leone and serve these underserved populations and truly make a difference in their lives as an oral healthcare provider.
Now, with the incredible scholarship given to me by the Missouri Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, I had a chance to return to Africa, this time as a second year dental student. The value of the experience I received in east Africa is incalculable. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, is a beautiful country with even better people. I traveled with a team of doctors, nurses, medical students, and one other dental student. I had the pleasure of working alongside / learning from a Ugandan dental officer who was at the time, completing his training to be a full dental doctor.
The team operated clinics starting in more urban areas (Kampala, in the slums of Katwe), and proceeded to set up clinics more and more rurally as the trip went on. With most of my dental experience up to that point being constrained to plastic teeth inside of a mannequin in my school simulation clinic, I loved being exposed to real hands-on dentistry as I assisted Dr Hillary with intra and extra oral exams, anesthesia, extractions, fluoride varnish and post-op instructions. One of my favorite parts of assisting was learning basic vocabulary for dental procedures in both Lugandan and Runyankore. Yysama—open wide! Tootya, tootya! –Don’t be afraid! And so on and so forth. All together, the team saw over 846 patients, with over 90% being children.
The opportunity to serve these populations was generously given to me by the Missouri Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. The generosity of their contribution started a cascade that not only blessed me with this meaningful life experience, but also made an impact on every single child I was able to assist. And for that, I am forever grateful!
James (Matt) Freihofer
DMD Class of 2021
Missouri School of Dentistry & Oral Health
St Louis, MO