In an open clearing, under the sunlight of Thailand and beneath the shade of a village tree in Burma, Dr. Joseph Whitehouse provided impromptu dental care that he never intended to practice abroad. Finding himself at the right place at the right time, while visiting remote villages in Southeast Asia, he began performing tooth extractions to local villagers that suffered from mild to severe dental complications.
But it was a vacation in Guatemala and a coincidental encounter with a physician from Idaho, that really got Dr. Whitehouse committed to third world dentistry. While reading under a canopy in Lake Atitlan, similar to the U.S.’s Lake Tahoe, Whitehouse and friends began talking to a Physician from Idaho that had set up a medical clinic in the area. Whitehouse remembers, “I said to him, how would you like a dental clinic? And that was probably about five or six years ago. We have not only set up a clinic in the Mayan village where he has his clinic, but there are now four other dental chairs. Three at lake level and two way up in the mountains.”
With the success of his clinics, dentists can go volunteer down in Guatemala and branch off into each of the villages where a dental chair has been set up. “The dental chairs are there, slowly we will get lights in all of them, couple of them now have the lights and slowly get compressors in each one of them and then we can go ahead and actually do dental care.”
Whitehouse recalled, “Each time I didn’t originally go to do any dentistry. I took along instruments because the person leading the tour in Thailand had built a place for us to stay in a Mong village. Then it turned out to be appropriate, the day we were going to walk out of there, to line up and shoot up nine people, let them get back in line and by the time I shot up the ninth one, the first person was numb and I could take one tooth out of each person. In other words, that was something that was appropriate for them, it was pretty easy to do and that was the first time I had done anything like that.”
His next encounter, while getting ready to leave a remote village in Burma, was with a man suffering from an extreme draining abscess. “It didn’t seem appropriate to do anything, but on the way out, there was a man and down at the bottom corner of his mouth, below his ear, he had a draining abscess coming out. And I thought this guy could die, I’ve never seen anything like it. So we got him under a tree, where I still had sunlight, and determined that there were two molars that were very very loose and they were the cause of the infection probably. But he probably never even knew what a dentist was.” With the help of three translators, Whitehouse was able to remove the two molars successfully. Watching this procedure from afar, Whitehouse was then approached by a woman wearing an elaborate silver coin headdress that also wanted a tooth removed. He treated her and would have treated others, but the sunlight was going down, diminishing visibility.
Since starting his clinics the dental school in Guatemala City, approximately two hours away, has agreed to send one of their senior students down to the main clinic for eight months out of the year. So now a village of about 3,000 people basically has a dentist about eight months a year. “This has changed everything for them” said Whitehouse. “They can perform basic fillings, extractions and cleanings..."
With continued support and success, Dr. Joseph Whitehouse plans to continue his work in Guatemala and will someday share his story in totality.