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Dentist’s scuba-tank innovation bolsters missions in remote areas

MARION, Ill. (BP)–Ray Odle wanted to reduce the number
of teeth pulled on mission trips.
“We’re down there to do as much as we can for as many
as we can,” said the Illinois dentist, who has been on
volunteer teams to Central America almost every year since
Facing limits to treatment in areas with no
electricity, volunteer dentists had to pull teeth instead of
fix them.
Odle, a former chemist who once designed paint at a
factory job, knew that innovation takes time and requires
new combinations of technique and equipment.
Last year, Odle found a breakthrough by using scuba
tanks on a trip to Belize. Air-powered dental instruments
allowed dentists to fill cavities where electricity is rare.
Now Odle — a longtime member and former president of
the Baptist Medical-Dental Fellowship, a global network of
medical professionals who volunteer on short-term mission
trips — is encouraging other dentists to use the same
“I’m not a preacher type,” Odle said. “I’m not a
Yet, he felt an inward pull to missions while in high
school in southern Illinois. He learned about innovation as
a Boy Scout, studied chemistry at Southern Illinois
University and spent a year at Southeastern Baptist
Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
“(I) hadn’t had that much interest in dentistry,” he
recounted. By this time, he was married and had returned to
Illinois as a bivocational church planter. He and his wife,
Mildred, helped start four mission churches in the area, and
then Odle considered dental school to expand an interest in
chemistry and provide more options on the mission field.
He entered dental school at the University of Illinois
and continued interim church work on Sundays, with a full-
time night job at a paint factory.
“We kept busy during those years,” he explained, noting
average sleep time was four hours a night. But he graduated
four years later.
His children were too old for the family to enter
foreign missions. So Odle began volunteer assignments as a
That took him to Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Ecuador,
Venezuela and Ethiopia. He also served as a trustee on the
Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board), and
spent four years in Yemen as an associate foreign
There he and his wife helped start the only English
speaking church in the capital. It continues today.
Many of his trips in Central America have been to small
clinics in isolated areas where the need is greatest. But it
also has had risks.
Odle had to sleep in a thatch hut on one trip and pigs
woke him as they rooted for food.
Four years ago, he and his wife were in the rain forest
of Guatemala where she experienced pain in her chest.
It was a heart attack.
“She had suffered pretty severe heart damage,” Odle
recounted. Medical care was hours away in the capital. They
drove out and radioed for help from Mission Aviation
Fellowship. Pilots took her to Guatemala City where a
medi-vac flight returned her to Illinois.
“We came back and thought … well, this is the end of
our trips,” Odle recalled.
Mildred lost half the function of her heart muscle. But
the couple was able to continue the next year with a trip to
Venezuela and again last year with a mission trip to the
coast of Belize.

    About the Author

  • Clay Renick