Dental Care Volunteers

Ladakh

A chance conversation leads to a full-fledged dental clinic for under-privileged children in a Himalayan school

By Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren, December 26, 2016

Dr. Seema Vohra and Dr. Rashnavi Masalawala, with a Druk White Lotus School patient.

Teach them to clean them: dentist Dr Rajmeet Kaur

Come April 2017 Dubai-based dentist Dr Seema Vohra will be heading back to Leh, a high-altitude district that nestles 11,562 feet above sea level in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India.

A day or two of rest in the capital Leh city, waiting for the body to acclimatise to the sudden drop of oxygen at such high altitudes, and Seema will be back doing what she does best — peering into mouths and checking teeth. Only here, it will be for free and the teeth will be those of the children of Druk White Lotus School (DWLS), an educational institution that has not earned as much fame for its 15-year effort to educate under-privileged Ladakhi children as it has for its appearance as Rancho’s school in the 2009 Aamir Khan movie Three Idiots.

If all goes as planned, it will be Seema’s second visit to the school located in Shey, a 40-minute drive from Leh city. Her first trip was in June 2016 when the dental initiative got off the ground.

 

How it all started

It all happened after a chance conversation Seema had with a patient — Harsha Makhija, who has made something of a name for herself as a humanitarian, having worked since 2010 to sponsor 50 needy students at DWLS, locally known as the Druk Padma Karpo School.  

 

Druk Padma stands for ‘white lotus’ in the local Bodhi language. Harsha mentioned that children at the school, some of them hailing from very remote and mountainous areas of Ladakh, had very limited access to dental services. He suggested that Seema, who works at the Clover Medical Centre, Dubai, mobilise colleagues and friends to volunteer and set up a clinic at the school.

“Something about the project made me want to volunteer my time,” said Seema, who sought the advice of Dr Sameer Shaikh, orthodontist and head of Clover Medical Centre, on how to go about the project. She then threw open the suggestion to fellow dentists in their professional WhatsApp group. By June, three other Dubai-based dentists had committed to offering their services.

Dental Clinic at Shey

Like Seema, Dr Richa Naik, Dr Rajmeet Kaur and Dr Rashnavi Masalawala had to meet their own travel and accommodation expenses. Harsha Makhija, whose suggestion had prompted the entire project, arranged corporate funding for the dental equipment such as a dental chair, high-end sterilisers, an X-ray unit etc. These were sent over to Shey from New Delhi, following which Seema flew down to set it all up in the room the school used as their medical clinic.

 

“We saw around 100 children over four-five days,” said Seema. Procedures ranged from tooth extractions, fillings and the routine cleaning, scaling and polishing. As part of preventive dental treatment, the team used sealants to protect teeth and stop further tooth decay. Case records were created.

 

Priority was given to children who live in the school hostel all year round, even when their classmates return to their families during breaks.“It was heart-wrenching to see the children sit so stoically during treatments,” said Richa Naik, who has specialised in periodontics.

 

The team had brought small stickers and pens to give away to the children after they had been in to see them. “They would take it so very humbly,” said Richa. “It seemed like they valued anybody who showed them a little love.”

The dentists were keen to emphasise steps the children could take to prevent tooth decay. Hence they would go into classrooms to speak to them about oral hygiene and the correct way to brush teeth.“The students by and large had good oral hygiene,” said Rajmeet Kaur.

“Their gum health was fairly good,” Rashnavi said. The team assigned this to the healthy high-fibre diet served in school, and the close-to-nature lifestyle of the Ladakhi people. “However, decay rates were pretty high,” said Rashnavi. Thus the need for a dental camp.

A 5-year-old with a zest for life

When asked to share their experiences with the Druk White Lotus School students,  the team mentioned a deaf and mute 5-year-old. “She had the sweetest smile,” said Richa Naik. “She was so happy and bubbly, so full of life,” said Rashnavi Masalawala.

“We did a filling for her. The next day, she came back to us, pointed at her filling and gave us a thumbs up.”

Dr Seema with her young patient

Expanded team

Seema’s second visit to Leh will also see her lead an expanded team of volunteers. Around 10 dentists have so far committed to help out. They will visit DWLS in 2 batches — the first team will be going in April and the second some time in June-July. The larger group will not only be able to treat more children at DWLS, but they will also help out at the Lamdon School in Leh City, which has requested their services. Set up in 1973, Lamdon School educates around 1,200 Ladakhi children in the age group of 4-16.

School volunteer

Rashnavi Masalawala mentioned a group of two girls and two boys who would help out at the clinic. “We made them put on masks and help us. It made them feel part of the team,” she said. “Who knows maybe one of them might choose to be a dentist.”

Dr Rashnavi explains cavities and pain

Pipeline for help

So far the effort to set up the clinic has been very informal. However, as the project gathers momentum it is not only attracting interest in terms of dentists, eager to volunteer, but also a determination to turn the initiative into a permanent one.

The school nurse has been trained to ensure that the expensive dental equipment is maintained. Dentists from Mumbai, India, and Australia have reached out enquiring whether they can help. Meanwhile doctors from the Army hospital, as also the local dentist in Leh, have agreed to chip in and help the school in the absence of volunteer doctors.

As Dr Rajmeet Kaur pointed out, the first group of dentists had a different set of challenges. “However, now it is all streamlined and there is no need for teams to be led,” said the dentist, who has specialised in aesthetics and restorative dentistry.

The team also commended the efforts of DWLS’ principal Stanzin Kunzang. While Richa described her as a “dynamic lady, who knew every child by name and their family history”, Rajmeet emphasised that DWLS’ children were “in safe hands”.

“The kids are happy and loved,” she said. “Donations are coming in, and these are channelised well.” Would-be benefactors, who have come to know about the school through the efforts of the dental clinic, would probably find this statement reassuring. As during her last visit, Seema and her colleagues will be carrying a host of donated items such as sweaters, blankets, jeans and jackets for the children when she goes in April.

Dr Rashnavi Masalawala, who was part of the launch team, and is likely to visit DWLS in July, noticed that besides dentists, the school would also benefit from doctors in other specialities. “There are a host of medical issues such as skin issues, because of the extremes of temperature there, red eyes, dry eyes. For major medical issues children have to be flown down to Delhi.”

A spiritual experience

For Rajmeet Kaur, the experience was almost “spiritual”. She said: “We went there with no expectations. But during the course of our trip all four of us found ourselves becoming emotional. On the last day of the trip when we had to say goodbye to the children, I was crying. I returned with a feeling of gratitude and fulfillment that I have never felt before.”

For Richa, it was as though “I left a piece of my heart there”. The simplicity and humility of the Ladakhi people also made an impact, underlining the superfluous nature of modern-day trappings. Richa said: “I realised we don’t need any of this. Just the basic things are enough to be happy.”

Rajmeet added: “Many of the children don’t know the comforts of a home and a family, and yet they are so humble and simple and happy. We thought we went there to treat, but WE came back healed.”

 

An education in the Himalayas

There’s beauty and hardship in almost equal measure in Leh, Ladakh. The region located in Jammu and Kashmir India, is among the coldest inhabited places on earth with temperatures dipping well below zero during December and January.

The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) in Shey and Lamdon School in Leh City, 45 minutes from Shey, were set up to give Ladakhi children their right towards education. While Lamdon School was set up in 1973, DRUK was set up in 2001. Together they cater to around 2,000 children in the 4-16 age bracket, many of them from impoverished families living in remote areas of the Ladakh.

An essential part of the education in these schools is passing on Ladakh’s unique culture, traditions, art and history. Both schools have a sponsorship programme that allows them to take in very poor children and orphans and provide them with hostel facilities as well.

 

Wish to help? Please visit 

www.dwls.org 

and 

www.himalayanchildren.co.uk/lamdonschool

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