Monday, November 01, 2004

Another Example of Seva (selfless service)

Dentist Sinks His Teeth Into Relief
Los Angeles Times10/31/2004By Steve Chawkins

Jim Rolfe has spent weeks and about $50,000 trying to fill a big void in Afghanistan. Now he is planning to set up his own clinic in Kabul
At 65, Jim Rolfe has been a dentist for a long time, but his practice in downtown Santa Barbara hardly prepared him for what he found in Afghanistan.
"There was a continuous flow of problems you couldn't imagine even existing in the U.S.," he said. "It's like coming onto an auto accident with bodies lying all over the street. That's how it is when a person opens his mouth to be treated."
Like numerous other medical professionals who pitch in at Third World clinics for brief periods, Rolfe wanted to spend a few weeks simply doing what he could. What he didn't count on was his spark of altruism turning into a full-fledged mission.
So far, Rolfe has spent more than $50,000 of his own money to provide dental care in Afghanistan. What he has in mind, though, is far grander in scope than simply writing a check.
Rolfe could be the only Santa Barbara dentist currently looking to buy land in Kabul. When he finds it, he will plunk down a used shipping container he purchased as the hub of his future clinic. He will rig it up with a generator and running water, outfit it with dental equipment, recruit U.S. professionals, train Afghan dental assistants, and, practically overnight, give Afghans in sore need of dental work an opportunity to get it.
Rolfe has a gray beard, rock-star-length hair, and a down-to-earth style. It's not hard to picture him as what he once was: the official dentist — as well as goat tender and truck driver — for a Santa Barbara commune called Brotherhood of the Sun.
Decades later, his office is as distinctive as his background. Conga drums and bongos sit in the waiting room for patients anxious to take the edge off their visit to the dentist. Patients recline to view TV sets mounted in the ceiling as a fountain cascades in the background. Designed and built by Rolfe, the treatment areas are cozy beige nooks with curved walls, a style Rolfe calls "Southwestern Eskimo."
Such comforts are a world away from the grim certainties of a country torn by war over the last 30 years. Sitting in his waiting room, Rolfe wearily reels off the statistics: The average male dies at 44. One in four children die by age 5. Ten percent of the population are orphans. Only one in seven people can read.
And the number of people in a land of 27 million who have ever seen a dentist is too small to measure.
"I'd look into mouths and just see a disaster," he said. "Instead of teeth, I'd see abscessed roots. These people had never had their teeth cleaned; I'd pull out tartar in huge rocks."
In 2002, Rolfe read about an orphanage in a remote mountain province and volunteered there for three weeks. He worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., using the children he treated as his "assistants."
"When I saw how grateful they were, I cried," he said. "They couldn't wait to get treatment."
Two years later, he returned for another couple of weeks, this time setting up shop at a women's clinic in Kabul.
For this trip, Rolfe had made a portable wooden dental chair, pocked with a Swiss-cheese pattern of holes to reduce its weight.
He also had some help. A recent graduate of Kabul's medical university acted as translator for $20 a day. He was jobless, as were all of the other 314 graduates in his class. And one of Rolfe's Santa Barbara patients, yoga instructor Hayley Parlen, came along as well. She had hoped to teach yoga techniques to children in Kabul but wound up assisting Rolfe.
Parlen, 29, had learned about Rolfe's plans when she was getting her teeth cleaned. She had no idea that within months, she would be able to soothe frightened women by intoning, in the local dialect, standard dental bromides such as "Just breathe" and "It'll only hurt for a second."
"With one hand, I'd suction blood from their mouth and with the other, I'd squeeze their hands or massage their forehead," she said. "My calmness translated to them that they'd be OK."
Rolfe is looking for donations and volunteers to help him on his planned trip in April. Setting up a booth at a recent state dental conference in San Francisco, he already has recruited Ike Rahimi, an Afghanistan-born dentist who treats farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley.
"The need is enormous," said Rahimi, whose mother might accompany him on the trip to see sisters still in Afghanistan. "Life is not so forgiving there."
In January, the secondhand shipping container that Rolfe bought for $2,500 will be stuffed with equipment and placed on a freighter to Rotterdam. From there, it will travel by rail to southern Russia, and then by truck through Uzbekistan, and, finally, to Kabul.
When it's set up, it will house a lab and three dental chairs. Westerners now fly four hours to Qatar for dental treatment. With his new facility, Rolfe hopes to treat them for fees that will subsidize treatment of the poor.
He hopes to eventually add simple accommodations for visiting professionals and classrooms where Afghan hygienists and technicians can be trained.
His is not the first such plan in Afghanistan. Other dentists have volunteered as well, and the American military has worked on restoring the nation's only dental hospital. Still, Rolfe said he has to focus on not being overwhelmed.
"I feel like a drop of water in the desert," he said.
For more information, see Rolfe's Afghanistan Dental Relief Project website at .

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