Dr. James Hall ended up working harder after he retired, then anytime during his forty years of dentistry, including a number of years in the U.S. military and private practice in Ocean Beach (near San Diego) California. What was overwhelming and exhausting, was a stint he did with a medical team at a center for orphans in Rwanda. There were over 150 young people who had never seen a dentist or had a toothbrush, let alone any instructions on oral hygiene and care! “Connecting with the kids and making eye contact is amazing, like a universal language,” says Dr. Hall, who saw up to 25 children per day!
Paying his own way to work at The ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, “felt like the right thing to do,” says Dr. Hall or “Jim” to his friends. He had the time, the money and most importantly, the skill and desire to make a difference in the lives of children who had survived the 1994 genocide and/or the AIDS pandemic. He had never thought about traveling around the world to Africa until a friend told him about a group that was going to provide medical care and trauma relief. “It was like the day I decided to become a dentist,” Jim recalls, “I had just graduated from Purdue and gone to see my family dentist. He asked me what I was going to do with my life and said he’d always thought that I would be a good dentist. When he said that, it was like a bolt of lightening that went up my spine. It gave me a chill. I immediately knew he was right, even though I’d never thought about it before.”
The team Dr. Hall joined was part of a group that consisted of nurses, therapists, teachers, journalists and economists. They worked in the orphanage and at other teaching centers in Kigali. ROP had minimal facilities, a leaking roof, dim, if any light and a wooden bench as a dental chair. With the help of interpreters, Dr. Hall had each child lay down on the raised bench and examined their teeth and gums. “Some people think being a dentist is boring,” states Dr. Hall, “but everyone that comes presents a new problem, a new thing to solve; a new communication. I learn something new all the time.”
In addition to his passion for learning something new, Jim has a big heart. He spoke to each child as if they were the only person in the world and told them how important their teeth were. More importantly, he stressed their individual importance. He reminded them that they are “a very special person” and even though he said it hundreds of times, it was always sincere. The kids responded in kind with nods, smiles and gigantic grins of understanding.
For three weeks Jim (Dr. Hall) sweated in the African heat, from morning until night, to see as many children as he could. Even though he was tireless in his endeavors, he could not see all of the children and realized that something more needed to be done. Before leaving Rwanda, Dr. Hall and another team member found some local dentists and were able to meet with the Kigali Dental Association. “It seemed to me that it was better for us to pay for local dentists to provide ongoing care for the kids, than just do one big push,” he says. “Not only does it keep it in the community, with Rwandans helping Rwandans, but it also helps the local economy.”
There are over a million orphans in Rwanda and countless agencies, both government and private, trying to ease the impact such numbers have on society, by providing food, clothing, shelter and education, but there are still thousands of children living on the streets or temporarily housed in government centers, only to be released back on their own after three to six months. Dr. Hall had no illusions that he was going to “save the world”. “If I can reach just one kid and they believe their teeth are really important,” Jim smiles, “I’ve done something. I know something good came out of this. I just trust the way the world works.”
Upon entering the abandoned automotive warehouse that was once the home of ROP, the team Dr. Hall traveled with was greeted with exuberant music and dance by the children, teachers and staff. They received the same gift upon their departure and were deeply touched. Jim says wistfully, “The sound of the music and voices was overwhelming. I had tears running down my cheek.”
It is ironic that it is Dr. Hall who feels grateful for his experience in Rwanda, as much or more than those that received his care. “Dentistry is so intimate,” he says softly. “I feel it is a great privilege to be a dentist. It takes such great concentration. Everything and everyone else is excluded. It keeps you in the moment.”
Perhaps it is that sense of “being in the moment” that made it possible for this retired dentist from California to connect so closely with children and teenagers from another culture and another land, without being able to speak their language. He was able to look beyond their personal suffering, recent past and present conditions and see them as precious human beings who want the same things we all do; to be seen, honored and cared for.