“Every once in a while, my grandpa – a schoolteacher – would get a pliers and yank out someone’s aching tooth,” says Dr. David Ugai, recounting his grandparents’ experience as missionaries in present day Zimbabwe. “The funny thing is, my grandma never got gifts for being a nurse, but people would bring my grandfather a chicken for taking out someone’s tooth. It probably stuck with me…that that was an area I could make an impact in.”
Years after first hearing those stories, Dr. David, who had become a dentist, signed up to volunteer with Mercy Ships in Guinea. Like his grandparents, he wanted to use his skills to help people, but he had no idea just how great the need would be.
“Some days we would see 100 patients…and throughout the 10 months that Mercy Ships was there, that line just kept getting longer and longer,” he says. “We could stay in Guinea forever, and that line would continue to be there. So there had to be some better way to do this.”
That was back in 2012. Seven years later, that “better way” came knocking at his door. The Gamal Abdel Nasser University, in Conakry, Guinea, asked Mercy Ships to help provide clinical training to dental students. It turns out, this was a huge need: “Dental students in Guinea might get a little bit of patient experience, but there’s no formalized board evaluating the procedures to make sure they’re qualified to be a dentist,” he says. “Some students are fantastic and they find a proper apprenticeship, but you also have many students that fall out of the system.”
What started out in 2018 as one-month clinical rotations with Mercy Ships, along with a renovation of the university’s dental school, has morphed into a full-fledged program where students receive supervised advanced clinical training on well-functioning equipment. These are two things that are typically hard to come by in Guinea.
The dental school’s clinic also provides low-cost dental services, some of which may end up changing or even saving patients’ lives. But the real impact, according to Dr. David, comes from its students. “We have a group right now that show up here every day at 7 a.m. and they leave at 7 or 8 p.m. And in between that time, they’re either in the clinic or they’re back in the laboratory studying,” he says. “Each year we’re graduating 10 to 15 students. Over time…they’re going to take charge of these problems, not Mercy Ships.”
Although these types of changes take time, Dr. David witnesses progress all the time. “I enjoy seeing that light bulb go off in that student when they finally understand something or finally get a procedure,” he says. “I’m also proud of our students’ concern for the general population. When they talk about their future, they’re talking about how they want to impact Guinea.”
What are the next steps for Dr. David and the Gamal University dental school? Mercy Ships is transitioning the management of the program to Gamal University, with Dr. David recently stepping into a volunteer role as a dental department faculty member. With his guidance, this will give the university full reigns over the dental training program and its future – allowing them to make their own lasting impact in their country.
For the foreseeable future, you can find Dr. David at the dental school in Conakry, following in his grandparents’ footsteps as he helps train the next generation of Guinean dentists. But he won’t take credit for it: “Faith is a big driver of why I do what I do,” he says. So far, no one’s given him a chicken for his trouble, but the fulfillment of changing lives is reward enough.