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Finding Your Mission in Dentistry

by Jennifer Perry, DDS
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2016

As I entered “Ms. V’s” room, I could see her neck and leg braces, and as I came around the dental chair to greet her, I could see pain in her face. Two days before, she was hit by a car while crossing the road and her two front teeth were broken all the way to the nerve. It was obvious her entire body hurt, but she said the pain from her teeth was simply unbearable. I explained she would need root canals to save the teeth, but her insurance would only cover the procedure on one tooth. Thankfully, we ended up finding a way for her to be able to afford the other tooth as well.

When I saw Ms. V again after her root canals, she was free from any tooth pain and could finally talk, eat and smile again. We were able to pray for her and thank the Lord for His provision and her spirit of joy throughout the process. Not once did she complain about anything and she always greeted everyone with a warm smile. She’s waiting for insurance money to come in again until she returns to our clinic for a full exam, but we know we’ve given her a huge part of her life back with her mouth no longer being in pain. She also now knows the Lord loves her and He brought her to us to receive the treatment she needed to save her teeth, treatment she would have been unable to afford at a private practice.

Ms. V is only one of the countless patients I’ve had the opportunity to treat at Christ Community Health Services (CCHS) in Memphis, Tennessee through CMDA’s Dental Residency [+] program. This residency trains and equips dentists just like me to provide excellent dental care to the poor domestically and internationally in response to the call of Jesus to preach the gospel and heal the sick.

“Now as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the Lord thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel…Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’” (1 Samuel 7:10,12, NKJV).

I have spent the last year working as a first year resident in this program, and it has been incredible to where the Lord is taking the residency. As I look back on my time in Memphis, I can see moments that have added up like stones in an altar and, just like Samuel, I can say, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”


Residency Year

The Lord brought me to Memphis through my involvement with CMDA in dental school. As a CMDA student member, I heard about the program and was so excited because everything the Lord is calling me to do with dentistry is rolled up into this program. The CMDA Residency [+] program provides a unique combination of exceptional clinical experience and discipleship. The dentists who go through the program intend to spend their lives serving the underserved through dentistry in urban areas or internationally among unreached people groups. In both scenarios, graduating dental students benefit greatly from clinical training with difficult cases, exposure to living cross culturally in a neighborhood of need and intentional discipleship to be able to train others in the future.

It was exactly what I was looking for to take the next step in my journey to follow God’s call, so I applied and then went through the interview process. Before I knew it, I was leaving Texas for the first time in my life to be a part of a brand new Christian dental residency program.

And I wasn’t alone. Elise Rich, DDS, and I both accepted offers to be the first residents of this program because we understand that it encompasses so much more than just dental training. The three characteristics that make up the framework of the program are dental care excellence, discipleship and community.

Residents in the program complete a Lutheran Medical Center Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) Residency with clinical training at Christ Community Health Services and the University of Tennessee. During this year, residents alternate weekly between the dental school and the CCHS clinics. During the week at the dental school, we spend time learning complicated procedures and working with complex cases. Then we spend the alternate week at the CCHS dental clinics providing care for the underserved in Memphis. We have wonderful mentors in the CCHS clinics and are learning a great deal, including dental implant procedures and working through complex cases with medically compromised patients.

As we learn more about dentistry, we are also mentored as we grow and learn what it means to carry the gospel into our professional work in the clinics. That’s where the discipleship portion of the program comes in. In addition to what we learn in the dental clinics on a day-to-day basis, we also participate in weekly “Plus Program Nights.” On a weekly basis, we spend time together learning, growing and sharing our own experiences in the program. This time is set aside for personal growth and development as to what it really means to be a dentist who is a true follower of Christ. Elise and I cherish these nights and have learned a lot from the discussions, readings and friendships we have developed through them.

Another large part of the program is learning how to live our entire lives missionally and be examples of Christ in all we do, especially in our community. One way we do this is by living in the same inner city neighborhoods where many of our patients also live. We also meet for church in houses in these same neighborhoods. It’s been amazing to see the different relationships formed within the church and with our neighbors.

One of our community outreach programs includes going to designated preschools and elementary schools to complete dental exams and some minor treatment for the students. Trying to do exams on 30 wiggling 3, 4 and 5-year-olds may sound daunting, but it is one of my favorite things to do at CCHS. Many of the children I see have no cavities, but a handful always break my heart because I know this little person smiling up at me is either in pain or will be soon because almost all of their teeth are black and brown with decay. But we have hope, because we know these children now have an open door to come to our clinic through the dental report we send home explaining their need.

The first year in the program was a great experience, and I am thankful for all the Lord taught me through it. I would not have applied to do more advanced education if not for this program, and I have learned invaluable information because of it.

“Thus far the Lord has helped us.”


[+]1 and [+]2 Years

Elise and I are both now in the [+]1 Year of the program. For the next two years, we will be working full-time in the CCHS clinics providing care to the underserved, training other residents, learning about practice management and growing in leadership.

But before we moved into these new roles, we had the privilege of praying for and helping select two new residents to join us in Memphis. Josephine Verlanic, DDS, and Monique Trice, DDS, moved to Memphis in June 2015, and it’s been a joy making them part of our Memphis family as they journey through their AEGD residency year. These two new residents work at different Christ Community sites, and they both spend time working with us in clinic. It has been an incredible experience mentoring people who are where we were just a year ago.

Now that Elise and I have finished the AEGD residency year, we’ve started working in the CCHS dental clinics. It’s been difficult, but fun, stepping in as full-time healthcare professionals. We are now able to see patients more consistently and think of different ways we can bring Christ into the clinic. So far, we have set a goal of praying with at least a few patients every day. It’s a small step, but there is already evidence of the Lord working in people’s lives.

The Lord has also been faithful in spreading the news of what He is doing here. We’ve had visitors ranging from dental students, to missionaries, to dental specialists. Two students came to stay with us for a few days and shadow us to see what life looks like here in Memphis. God is doing something with this residency, and His work is evident by the people being drawn to it.

One key aspect of this section of the program is a month-long international rotation each resident completes during the [+]1 Year. I am headed to Kenya in March, while Elise recently returned from the Middle East where she worked with Bedouins and refugees. It is exciting to hear her tell stories of the way she got to see God’s kingdom spread in that area and the people she was able to share life with for a month. While treating refuges here in our clinics in Memphis, she has already had a chance to practice the little dental Arabic that she picked up while overseas. She returned from the Middle East with a renewed spirit in what God is doing globally and how privileged we are to be a part of it. An excerpt from her journal is included at the end of this article.

Dental care is one of the greatest unmet needs of the poor in our country and around the world. Dentists are extremely underrepresented in healthcare missions. One of the goals of this residency program is to train residents to start residency programs in mission hospitals to then train national dental missionaries who will serve their own people.

“Thus far the Lord has helped us.”


Beyond the Dental Chair

As we continue to walk through the next steps of our journey, Elise and I are being prepared to go where the Lord is calling us to go next, wherever that may be. And that’s because our training has always focused on going beyond the dental chair. Our education didn’t simply stop when we completed the classroom portion of the residency. Instead, we are being equipped to boldly love God and love our neighbors through dentistry among the poor, both domestically and internationally, through this program.

Maybe the Lord is calling us to provide care to the underserved at clinics similar to CCHS in other areas of our country. Maybe He’s going to open the doors for us to use dentistry as a means to share the love of Christ with unreached people across the world in underdeveloped nations. Maybe God is even calling us to establish like-minded residency programs across the U.S. to help raise up and disciple other dentists who feel God’s calling to serve the poor and spread the gospel. No matter what He has planned, I have no doubt the Lord is using this program to further His kingdom and will continue to do so in the future.

“Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

And just like Samuel prayed to God for His protection through battle in 1 Samuel 7, we are praying for God to guide our steps as we seek to do His will. I invite you to pray with us. Pray for wisdom and guidance in the next steps as we proceed. Pray for this program and God’s ministry here in Memphis to continue to take root and be a strong flagship for potential Christian residencies in other locations of the U.S. and overseas. Pray for guidance on where the Lord wants new residencies to be located. Pray for clarity on what the Lord is calling each of us to do upon completion of the program. And most importantly, pray for us to be obedient to God’s call to serve Him in all we do.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV 2011).

For more information about the CMDA Dental [+] Residency, please visit www.dentalresidency.org.

Notes from the Middle East
by Elise Rich, DDS

Three weeks ago, when I stepped off the plane and stood around waiting for more than an hour for my bags, a lady robed in all black with her head covered started a conversation with me and welcomed me to her country. The conversation ended with an offer to stay at her house near the airport if the late luggage made me miss my ride. This was my introduction to a very hospitable culture where God is doing great things. In the last three weeks, I have seen extreme poverty and heard stories of people barely escaping ISIS, but I have also seen the work God is doing and how faithful He is.

Today in clinic I treated a 24-year-old male patient who, from all appearances, was a normal middle class citizen. He spoke English well and stated he was an engineer and wanted to learn another aspect of engineering. But when the bombings started in his area, there was no way to continue his schooling and he eventually had to flee. He wanted to know what needed to be done with his front teeth because they had several dark stains on them. The patient stated that he thought the darkness was from eating “ice” for a week. I looked at him quizzically and asked why he was eating ice for a week. The patient then realized he had used the incorrect word for what he was trying to describe, and after a little communication we both realized he meant “snow.” I repeated my question and asked when he ate snow for a week. The patient looked at me and very nonchalantly stated that when he had to flee his home, all he had to eat for a week was snow. This was only the first patient of the morning.

Later this afternoon I was chatting with a younger gentleman who told me he had a degree in design from the institute of computer and technology in the country he was from. However, he never got to use his degree. One evening his dad got a call from a Muslim friend stating that ISIS had come into their city and were targeting Christians, so they needed to leave as soon as possible. With no preparations, they got in their cars and drove north. He was now a refugee and could not use his degree. He had applied for refugee status in a couple Western countries, but he was still waiting to hear back after more than a year. I tried to sympathize with him, but he interrupted me, “Doctorah, I wish I had a skill set like you because then I could really be like Jesus and help the poor and those that are needy. Right now all I do while I am waiting for the refugee status is help and volunteer in the church here.” I did not know how to respond. This young, recently married man has a degree he cannot use because he is a refugee who fled his home with a couple of family members, but his real concern was that he was not helping the needy and spreading Jesus’ name well enough through his work with the local church.

There is no way these stories don’t affect you. They are men and women just like me; young professionals who were born in different areas to different families and live different lives but, through Christ, have a yearning to make Jesus known through the nations. My definition of suffering would be in part what these young men and women went through, yet their hearts and minds are on greater things. It gave me an entirely new outlook on James 1:2-3, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (NIV 2011).  The news outlets and social media are covering the terrorism and terrible things going on in the Middle East. Yet no one gives tribute to the people on the ground ingrained and engaged with their culture who are serving and loving people in the name of Christ, in spite of suffering and persecution. I have been so privileged to meet these brothers and sisters, and, honestly, I am completely humbled God granted me the opportunity to witness His work, hear stories and meet people whose lives have been changed for the gospel in an area of the world that instills fear in so many people.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Perry, DDS