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Oral surgery brings relief, a better life in Tanzania

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Dr. Frank Bald (left), an oral surgeon practicing in Elizabeth City and the Outer Banks, is shown working on a dental patient in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, with a local dental professional during his recent medical mission trip to the African nation.

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By Kesha Williams
Correspondent

Sunday, May 26, 2019

For the past 31 years, oral surgeon Dr. Frank Bald has seen his share of patients miserable with pain and swelling associated with problematic teeth.

Relieving pain and suffering is part of his mission each day at his dental offices in Elizabeth City and Nags Head. But recently, another dental mission called him 7,000 miles away to Dar es Salam, Tanzania, to relieve the suffering of those far less fortunate than most of his North Carolina patients.

In some cases, as Bald explained, Tanzanian patients not only endured pain, but also embarrassment from dental-induced facial tumors left untreated far too long.

Bald is empathetic, because many Tanzanian patients lack money to cover preventative dental care costs or oral surgery costs. Another problem, he said, is Tanzania’s lack of dentists and oral surgeons to sufficiently meet the needs of their growing population. The cost of training oral surgeons has been a problem for the eastern African nation.

Before leaving for Tanzania in early March, Bald created and sent lecture notes to Tanzanian dental professionals. The notes, he said, would help them learn to sedate patients and complete dental procedures not usually performed in their clinics.

He also collected a large assortment of equipment and supplies to take along to Dar es Salaam that oral surgeons needed to care for patients. The equipment was used when he and the dental professionals there set up two clinics.

“I’d set up a chapter and say this is what oral surgeons there need to know to help more patients. I did not plan to go there to give lectures, but to start doing the work,” Bald said.

He said conditions in Tanzania make procedures more difficult.

“They can only do local anesthesia in their hospital’s operating room. That’s a problem because there is limited time available in hospital operating rooms there,” Bald explained.

With additional training, dentists and oral surgeons were soon using sedation to resolve problems commonly resolved in American dental offices.

During Bald’s recent trip March 2-17, he worked with a team of medical professionals to removed large tumors from many patients. He also operated on patients with impacted teeth and wired the jaws of patients suffering from fractures.

Bald’s knowledge, skills and willingness to travel to train other dentists qualified him for an affiliation with Health Volunteers Oversees (HVO).

Since 1984, this nonprofit organization has provided education and training for students, residents and faculty at select sites where resources are limited.

Bald said the organization does not pay medical and dental professionals like him to work at the sites. Their work is volunteer service.

HVO coordinates several medical and dental exchange programs to improve health care options in select countries.

Bald admits, the trips are a sacrifice because he shuts down his North Carolina office up to two weeks to travel and serve others abroad. He said, however, that the experience has its rewards, as he discovered years earlier.

Several years ago, Bald recalled, a friend practicing in Spain invited Bald to visit Uganda and assist patients there. Between 1994 and 2002, he made six trips to Uganda to provide dental care. Concerns about safety issues eventually curbed those trips.

Later, when a relative living and working near Dar es Salaam, described the area, Bald wondered if his skills could be useful there. Though it had been years since he last visited Uganda, Bald remained concerned about patients in countries who were under served.

He was soon in contact with Health Volunteers Overseas and began planning trips to Tanzania.

“I wanted to go back to Africa after a 15-year absence and I wanted to return before I was too old," he said.

"An oral surgeon in Raleigh introduced me to Health Volunteers Overseas so my seventh and eighth trips to Africa have been to Tanzania,” Bald said. “I want to continue what I have started there. They have smart people working there but no free training for student dentists; not enough training facilities to produce enough dentists or oral surgeons.”

Often times, there were more patients waiting than he and other dentists could care for.

Bald fondly recalled two years ago traveling away from the Dar es Salaam clinic where he volunteered to complete a Safari sightseeing tour. He was awestruck by the beauty of the land where elephants roamed by morning and water buffalo wallowed each evening.

While commuting to the camp where he stayed overnight, Bald saw lions strolling calmly across the landscape. It was an amazing tour that exposed him to the scenery his Tanzanian patients can view routinely.

His dental mission trips and the tours provided something special Bald anticipated decades ago as a dental scholarship recipient of the U.S. Navy.

“I thought I would do some significant things in the Navy, like the Vietnam era surgeons who did over 1,000 jaw fractures for patients during that war," he said. "I thought I would do something with a lot of purpose like that, but thankfully, there was no war during my Navy career — during the '80s — to care for that many patients. I missed the start of the Gulf War by two weeks, because I’d already submitted my retirement papers.”

“There are probably few times in life where you know something that isn’t so special here can help a large population elsewhere," he said. "Working as an oral surgeon is basic health care here in America. But, you can show up and do basic health care in another part of the world and immediately help people suffering with tumors that have been growing months or years."

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