By Mary Stone
For many of us who live in the United States, a visit to the dentist is a fairly regular component of our health maintenance routine. But for citizens of developing nations, modern dentistry is anything but ‘fairly regular’ and in some rural areas and for those working to survive at lower income levels it is virtually nonexistent.
Dr. Terry Thompson of Ketchikan, Alaska is not one who sees a gap between his daily work as a dentist and his life as a Christian disciple. God calls each of us to use our gifts to benefit others, and for Terry Thompson that has meant a continuing mission of dental ministry to the poor; today that ministry is known as MOMDO (Mission of Mercy Dental Outreach). This lifelong Ketchikan resident, Holy Name parishioner, Knights of Columbus leader and local doctor has overcome numerous obstacles in order to bring his dental skills and ministry of healing to those in need—whether those patients are summer visitors, fishing industry workers, or impoverished children in Bolivia, China, and East Africa.
Thompson’s ministry of dental outreach has consistently sent him to locations around the world—working in situations that he never imagined and with less equipment than he ever imagined. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, he spent three weeks with other classmates from dental school providing dentistry work outdoors in a city park for those displaced by the hurricane. Later they provided their services to inmates inside a New Orleans prison. Previously, in 2003, he had traveled to a village near Cochabamba, Bolivia bringing dental care to street children, and in 2008 he and his wife brought their portable dental equipment and services to China, near the Mongolian border. Without an assistant and working with patients that have few dental alternatives, Dr. Thompson does it all: from routine dental hygiene to extractions and oral surgery. For many of these impoverished dental patients, he may be the only dentist they will ever see.
Although formalized dental mission organizations do exist (i.e., Dentists Without Borders), Dr. Thompson has usually just waited for the phone to ring. His last trip to China came about through word-of-mouth: a friend of a relative had their mission trip’s dentist back out at the last minute, and needed another experienced dentist with portable equipment to join their team. Dr. Terry fit that description and—typically–he said ‘yes.’
In his own recent life, Terry Thompson has defied the odds. After suffering from years of painful and debilitating headaches, he was diagnosed as being on the verge of a major stroke, and was instructed by Seattle doctors to ‘go home and get his affairs in order.’ Terry returned to Ketchikan, sold most of his busy dental practice (he retained one chair and a small office for occasional work), and waited for what would happen next. What happened next was that his headaches disappeared, his stroke-risk declined dramatically, and he returned to health. Whether it was the change of lifestyle, slower pace, or miraculous healing, Dr. Thompson chose to see his renewed health and good fortune as a gift from God and an opportunity to spend more time in dental ministry to those in need.
According to the World Health Organization’s website, “In developing countries, oral health services are mostly offered from regional or central hospitals of urban centres and little, if any, priority is given to preventive or restorative dental care. Many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin-America have a shortage of oral health personnel and by and large the capacity of the systems is limited to pain relief or emergency care. In Africa, the dentist to population ratio is approximately 1:150000 against about 1:2000 in most industrialized countries.”
Dr. Thompson has most recently set his sights on mission work in Tanzania, East Africa through personal connections made by his good friend Fr. Steve Gallagher, Associate Pastor of Holy Name parish in Ketchikan. During his time in seminary in Wisconsin, Fr. Steve befriended Benedictine Father Denis Ndomba of the Holy Spirit Mvimwa Monastery in Tanzania who was, at that time, visiting the U.S. to complete a master’s degree in theology. Hearing from Fr. Denis—now abbot of the Mvimwa Monastery–of the need for dental ministry in his home district of Sumbawanga, Fr. Steve immediately thought of Dr. Terry Thompson’s skills and willing spirit, and made the necessary ‘pitch.’ And, with that introduction, the seeds of MOMDA’s mission in Tanzania were planted.
Initially, Fr. Steve and Dr. Terry had planned to travel together to Africa in the late fall of 2011. Sadly, after suffering a major heart attack that fall, Fr. Steve was unable to travel to Africa as planned and the mission trip was put on hold. Today, with encouragement from the Alaska Knights of Columbus, Dr. Thompson has formed a plan to travel to East Africa this coming October, 2013, accompanied by Clyde Pasterski of Ketchikan. Fr. Steve will be leading their ‘home-team’ support, but is unfortunately not able to travel due to ongoing health complications.
Although the expenses of this trip will likely total near $40,000, Dr. Thompson isn’t waiting for funding to appear before getting the current mission ministry into motion. He plans to support the beginning of this mission with his own resources if necessary, and hopes that more will come into place through donations from individuals and dental supply companies. Thompson expects that this first trip to Tanzania will be primarily about logistics, planning, and getting equipment in place (his portable chair; dental station; and, x-ray equipment with power storage and generation capability), while a second trip will involve more dentistry. The obstacles to the success of this MOMDO trip are not few, nor are they small: safety in the region is a major consideration—Catholics are actively being persecuted in East Africa—and travel from the Dar es Salaam airport to the home parish will take 3 days, assuming the roads remain passable.
But, Dr. Terry Thompson has been down this road before, and he knows that God has called him to this very specific ministry. If the Tanzanian mission proves too difficult or too unsafe, he will turn to the missions and villages of rural Alaska. Either way, Dr. Terry Thompson and the Mission of Mercy Dental Outreach will be reaching out to heal and to give relief to those in pain—a very worthy answer to God’s call.
Donations to MOMDO can be sent to:
Alaska Knights of Columbus
Ron Reinhardt Sr., State Secretary
2201 53rd Ave.
Anchorage, AK 99507-1633
For further information, contact:
Terry Thompson, DDS
602 Dock St., Suite 102
Ketchikan, AK 99901
(907) 617-3514 Corolina4213@hotmail.com
Stanley Motors in Juneau has graciously volunteered to donate $300 for every vehicle sold during the month of November 2013 to the Mission of Mercy Dental Outreach.