Dentistry Without Borders: An Interview with Dr. Shinn
Dr. Shinn is the founder of World Wide Smiles Inc., an outreach organization formed to provide dental care, facilitate disease prevention, and promote education and practice of good oral hygiene worldwide. Find out more at forworldwidesmiles.org.
In 1990, Dr. Sherwin Shinn was on a mountaineering trip in Nepal when he encountered a 5-year-old girl with a life-threatening infection from several abscessed teeth. Dr. Shinn took the girl to the only hospital in the area in the hope that a doctor there could help her, but the hospital wasn’t properly equipped to deal with the situation. Once the local doctor learned that Dr. Shinn was a dentist, the responsibility for treatment was given to him. However, he had little to work with in the way of equipment.
“The only dental instruments in the facility were broken and rusted together into a pile of corrosion,” Dr. Shinn remembers. “I was not there as a dentist and had no instruments with me. The only thing I had was my pocket knife. I used it for the surgery!”
This incident was what motivated Dr. Shinn to get involved in dental outreach. The state of the hospital in Nepal made him realize how much dental care was needed in many parts of the world. People and children were dying every day from oral infections and lack of access to even basic hygiene tools like toothbrushes.
“I suddenly appreciated that a toothbrush was a powerful life-saving tool in the right hands with proper education,” Dr. Shinn says. He began taking trips back to Nepal, handing out toothbrushes to students in local schools and showing teachers how to teach proper hygiene to their students.
After taking several of these trips, Dr. Shinn wanted to provide more extensive services like extraction and restoration. He started to gear up with portable delivery systems, materials, and supplies that allowed him to perform a broad range of dental services in foreign countries. What started as simple dental outreach trips evolved into regular humanitarian dental missions with teams of volunteers and a large supply of support equipment. To date, he has taken approximately 70 dental outreach trips 2-6 weeks each spanning countries across Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, as well as underserved areas of the U.S.
The most difficult part of these dental outreach trips is the preparation, according to Dr. Shinn. “Our ability to operate is only as strong as our weakest link,” he says. “Making sure everything is thought of and accounted for demands a lot of time and focus.”
All of the necessary equipment—delivery units, handpieces, power sources, fuses, dental materials, and backups for each item—must be gathered, packed, labeled, and then shipped. Flight plans, accommodations, food, and transportation must be accounted for, and customs and immigration must be navigated.
“Once this is accomplished, the rest is easy,” Dr. Shinn says.
But the effort is worth it. Because of his extensive outreach work, Dr. Shinn has had many adventures and interesting cultural experiences. He has been interrogated at gunpoint by Ugandan soldiers (who ended up being friends in the end) and shown special places and things never before seen by anyone from an industrialized nation. He has sought out local healers and witnessed them work in ways that have broadened his understanding of what’s possible in medicine.
“Every time I see an Indiana Jones movie I realize I’ve done all those things and more,” Dr. Shinn says.
However, the most profound cultural experience Dr. Shinn has had is the meeting of his wife while on an outreach trip to Uganda. Marrying her required him to live in Uganda for nine months, during which he learned the cultural traditions necessary for him to marry her, paid a bride price, and was accepted by all 600 members of her family.
“I learned first-hand what life is like there,” Dr. Shinn says, “which allows me to respond accurately to their needs, as well as experiencing the happiness of our unique and wonderful relationship and family.”
Outreach dentistry has become a large part of Dr. Shinn’s life, abroad and at home. He has made new friends worldwide, experienced the traditions and practices of many cultures, and attained a renewed gratitude for the things we have here at home.
The Nepalese practice of Namaste (a Sanskrit word that means, “I honor and salute the greatness and divinity that is inside of you”) has had perhaps the most lasting effect on Dr. Shinn. While in Nepal, he was struck by how every one of the thousands he met—even in passing—would look straight into his eyes, bow, and say, “Namaste.”
“After hearing that thousands of times, I learned that each person deserves awe and respect,” he says. “I learned to recognize and acknowledge the divinity in everyone I meet.”
According to Dr. Shinn, Namaste has become the guiding principle in his outreach work, as well as his life. It has taught him to uplift and empower everyone he meets and has made his work and personal relationships more rewarding.
Dr. Shinn’s advice to a dentist leaving for his or her first outreach trip is to “always smile and ‘go with the flow.’ Remember that your American perspective of how things should work doesn’t apply in other parts of the world. [You will likely be] feeling some frustration at first because your working environment is different than normal. After a short time you will adjust to the new working parameters of your situation and will find a new comfort zone.”
He advises new outreach dentists to only focus on doing the best they can for one patient at a time. Even if there are hundreds of patients in line, focusing on the one in the chair prevents the dentist from becoming overwhelmed.
“Know that you are going to have an educational, positive, empowering, life-changing experience that you can’t get any other way,” Dr. Shinn says. “ ‘When you work for money, you can have all the things money can buy. When you give unconditionally, you get to have all the things money can’t buy!’ Having a good measure of both experiences is what brings broad and lasting fulfillment to Life.”