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Dentist: longterm results in short mission trips

TATE, Ga (BP)–Bennie Norton wanted to help a lot of people a little bit, but saw numbers add up after 33 mission trips in 16 countries.
“There’s so many places in the world where there’s not enough doctors or dentists,” he said. “Most of the people who go on these trips want to go back on another.”
Norton is president of the Baptist Medical and Dental Fellowship. It started 20 years ago and now has 1,700 members worldwide. Each year about 600 of those medical professionals go on short-term mission trips at their own expense.
“There’s no way to estimate the value of these medical volunteers,” said James Williams, executive director of the Baptist Medical and Dental Fellowship at the North American Mission Board.
“They use their vacation time,” he added. “They use their personal time.
“There’s an enormous commitment to Southern Baptist foreign missions expressed through the International Mission Board.”
Norton retired from dentistry after 35 years in private practice. But he paid about $2,000 for each trip throughout the years. That adds up to 17,000 people treated and $250,000 in revenues expended.
His first trip was to Guatemala back in the 1970’s. Norton worked at a coffee plantation and had approximately 80 people waiting for treatment.
“It seemed like everything went wrong,” he explained. “Teeth broke off. I couldn’t get the roots … Only got to half the people.”
“I realized that I couldn’t do anything on my own power,” he added. “I had to rely on him (God).”
Norton also noticed an older woman bringing different children to him.
They were her grandchildren and had never seen a dentist.
“I have no money to pay you,” she said. “But God will pay you.”
“I’ve always remembered that,” Norton recalled. “God has paid me in satisfaction and blessings many times over.”
The medical trips follow a pattern. They treat people at make-shift clinics while other volunteers start out-reach. And patients don’t always follow directions.
Norton gives injections to dull teeth before extraction. Patients then go to another chair until the area is numb. But some mistake the injection for treatment and walk away before the procedure’s over.
He also encountered spiritual opposition in areas like the Caribbean and Philippines. Witch doctors would sacrifice chickens or a pig and leave the carcass.
But even there, most villages welcome the doctors since medical care is expensive and rare.
“Everybody was looking out for our well being,” he said about a return trip to the Philippines. “We took care of the people regardless of their political ties.”
Last April he worked with Russel Snow in Guatemala. Snow is a dentist from East Side Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. They stayed a week in an area where there had never been a dental team. The two saw 455 patients and extracted more than 1,000 teeth.
“The more remote an area is — the better their teeth,” Norton said. “Their food is more primitive.”
Those diets include corn, rice, black beans and some meat. But decay comes from sugar products. He saw that on the Amazon River.
Norton spent two weeks on a floating clinic there and had to extract 3.7 teeth per person. He blamed the river traffic, which gave candy and soda to the Indians.
His last trip was to the Alaskan village of Tyonek. They had five health care volunteers in an area where the population is only about 140.
It’s an Indian reservation where oil profits brought several million dollars to the tribe 18 years ago. They used those funds to build western style houses, install water treatment and clear roads although there’s nothing to link past the village.
All products arrive in barges or by air. The Indians still get checks from the oil companies and government so they don’t work. That inactivity leads to alcohol problems.
They just drive around in pickup trucks and drink. And yet the people need medical help. A dentist comes to the area four times a year for the children.
“Dentistry for adults is almost non-existent,” Norton said.
He treated 40 people in four days with root canals started, restorations made and even a set of dentures fitted for the chief.
Four people became Christians. The Indians now want to start a sharing group to continue Bible study.
“There’s probably hundreds of other villages throughout Alaska with the same story,” Norton said. “We opened some doors that hopefully will be filled.”
The BMDF will have an annual meeting in Atlanta, March 5-8, 1998. They expect 1,000 health care providers and welcome non-member physicians, dentists and nurses, Norton added.

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  • Clay Renick