Trying to make the world smile
By Bruce Ward, The Ottawa Citizen July 30, 2009
When Dr. Howard Weld walked into the dental department at a hospital in Kinshasa, this is what he found. "No light, no working equipment, no X-ray, no suction and a sterilizer whose door is held shut by a rock. Doors and windows open ... flies on the surgical instruments."
Then Weld got to work. He'd find out later about the power outages.
Weld, who has a dental practice in Ottawa, went to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in early July to help out. It's a habit he has.
For 20 years, he donated a half-day weekly at a dental clinic set up at the Elisabeth Bruyère Health Centre. He was among the first dentists in Ottawa to treat AIDS patients, back when those with the disease were pariahs. At no charge, Weld also treated several "Chernobyl children" from Belarus who were billeted with caring Ottawa families in the early 1990s.
Weld was asked to go to DRC by the International Foundation of Friends of Africa, a francophone group of African expats trying to help those back home.
"I couldn't think of a good reason to say no," he told me. Weld is kidding, which he tends to do, because there are many reasons to say no. The country is dangerous, corrupt, and still recovering from the devastation of a five-year civil war that claimed three million lives.
"Since none of our equipment could be made to work, we were basically just digging out the remains of teeth on anyone from young children -- baby teeth that were grossly decayed -- to adults in their 40s, 50s, 60s," Weld explained.
One of the patients Weld encountered was a boy about six years old whose face was distorted by a tumour.
"What's more gut-wrenching than to see a kid who's suffering? We referred him to hospital, hopefully someone will take mercy and help him out. It's probably a benign tumor, if treated he'll live a long and productive life. With no treatment, he'll likely live a few more years than the tumour will block off the esophagus or block off his trachea. That's the end of the game."
Weld is still grappling with his experiences, sorting out all he saw and did.
"I'm still awake at night trying to cope with the reality that I was facing. A lot of that was my own naïveté, I'd never been to a Third World country before."
Weld travelled to DRC with a Congolese-trained dentist, who fled the country in the 1990s and is now working in Montreal as a hospital orderly. Together, they treated more than 400 patients over the course of six days.
"It would have been more than that but unfortunately blackouts are a major problem. When the power went out then the sterilizer died, such as it was, and when we ran out of instruments all we could do was twiddle thumbs until the power came back on."
From friends, Weld had scrounged an impressive load of gloves, masks, fresh needles and anaesthetic, all of which were desperately needed by the dental department in Kinshasa.
Weld paid for the entire trip himself, including all expenses. That's not counting the week's salary he gave up. None of it is tax-deductible.
"I have mixed feelings about the whole experience. We did some good, it was appreciated, but trying to function in a Third World country is damn difficult."
Weld visited an orphanage run by five remarkable women, and wonders if more might have been accomplished if he had given money to them.
"They could feed so many orphans, they could provide medicine to so many children, for a fraction of the money that I spent making the trip. So at some point you say I gained knowledge, I gained experience, but is this the best way to utilize available resources. I don't know the answer to that. I'm really too shell-shocked at this point to say more than that."
Weld is among the war resisters who left the U.S. for Canada during the Vietnam era. "I'm very grateful that back in those days the doors were open and I was given a chance to settle and make a life here. I have an amazing family, I have work that I enjoy, I don't mind giving a little bit back to the community. It's only fair."
Canada got a terrific bargain when Howard Weld came here. Any debt he feels he owns this country has been paid in full, over and over.
Bruce Ward writes for the Citizen.
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