A World Medical Mission Post-Resident oversees new Kenya dental clinic that is rooted in compassionate ministry.
Emma knew something was amiss when she watched her son repeatedly slap his cheek. Ten-year-old Sylvanus suffered from a variety of health problems, including epileptic seizures, but this was different. Even more challenging, Sylvanus had never learned to speak and could not tell his mother what was wrong. Tears rolled down his face.
Finally able to force his mouth open for a second or two, Emma saw just enough to understand why. The tissue around one of his teeth was swollen with infection.
Fortunately, a dental clinic had recently opened at Kapsowar Mission Hospital near their home in the rugged mountains of northwestern Kenya. Emma wrapped Sylvanus in a shawl and carried him on her back as she set out on foot to the clinic. Weary from their trek, they were warmly greeted by Dr. Caren Abraham and her staff.
As they do with all of their patients, Dr. Abraham prayed with Emma and tried to put at ease the mother as well as her son. She was joined by Dr. Felix Martin del Campo, a Samaritan’s Purse board member and a World Medical Mission volunteer dentist who was there to serve. Together they did their best to calm the terrified, screaming child before and during the procedure.
“We numbed his mouth and removed the abscessed tooth. He had immediate relief,” said Abraham.
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Sylvanus also made it through the procedure with only one seizure, but experienced another episode later at the clinic.
“We encouraged his mother, who was so sweet and patient with him,” added Dr. Martin del Campo. “You could see that she loved her son very much. She was so grateful that we were able to help him.”
The staff gave Emma, who is a follower of Jesus Christ, an illustrated Gospel storybook to read to her son. They helped her situate Sylvanus in the shawl on her back and prayed with her before she exited the clinic and began the long walk home.
Although Sylvanus’s case was a bit more complicated than their typical patients, the dental staff treats everyone who walks into their office with the same emphasis on compassion and ministry.
“We don’t just want to treat teeth, that’s treating only half the person,” Abraham explained. “We also take the spiritual pulse of our patients. We do seed planting and discipleship.”
“She loved her son very much. She was so grateful that we were able to help him.”
Finding the Right Match
The Kapsowar Dental Clinic is the culmination of years of prayer for a region of some 350,000 people who had little or no access to basic dental services until last fall.
Officials at Kapsowar Mission Hospital received financial assistance from Samaritan’s Purse and turned the basement of their surgical building into a fully equipped dental office with two chairs.
All they needed was a dentist, and Dr. Abraham provided the perfect fit.
“If it hadn’t been for the Post-Residency Program, I never would have heard about this need at Kapsowar,” she said. “World Medical Mission does a great job of knowing where the needs are and matching your skill set to that place.”
The St. Louis, Missouri, native had served on several international mission trips since dental school, including a trip to Kenya, but she had never heard of Kapsowar.
At the 2018 Global Missions Health Conference, Abraham first learned about opportunities for dentists to serve overseas through World Medical Mission’s Post-Residency Program. She applied and was thrilled to be accepted into the program the following year, having no idea where she might serve.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but Kapsowar was just waiting for a dentist,” she said.
A call from Dr. Richard Furman, co-founder of World Medical Mission, helped answer her prayers as he relayed the hospital’s plans to open a dental clinic. Abraham arrived at Kapsowar in June 2020 and spent the next four months acquiring equipment, developing policies and procedures, and hiring and training staff.
All of her hard work paid off on Oct. 8 as the clinic celebrated its official opening, bringing together hospital administrators and staff, local officials, and representatives from Samaritan’s Purse.
Promoting Dental and Spiritual Health
The clinic provides comprehensive dental services and can do complex restoration such as crowns and bridges. This year Abraham says the staff hopes to begin offering removeable prosthodontics (dentures and partials) and to open an on-site laboratory.
Keeping their services affordable is essential as many of their patients have limited resources. Exams are $5. Extractions are $8, and fillings are $20.
For some patients, the choice of treatment comes down to the least costly procedure. Even though the dentist could save a troublesome tooth with a little extra work, patients often opt for its complete removal.
Unfortunately, many of Abraham’s patients wait until their situation is so serious that there is no recourse except to pull the teeth. Fears of COVID-19 have also discouraged people from coming for treatment until the pain is unbearable.
“We see a wide range of patients, from children to the older generation, and from all walks of life. They may not be willing to go inside a hospital, but they will come to the dental clinic,” said Abraham. “When you have a toothache, you will move heaven and earth to get it taken care of.”
With carbonated soft drinks and candy more readily available, Abraham is seeing 3-and 4-year-old children with severe tooth decay. She feels her biggest hurdle is convincing people of the importance of brushing their teeth and controlling their sugar intake.
“It’s an uphill battle to educate people. Some have no idea that they can do something to save their teeth. We are trying to teach them to take responsibility for their own oral health,” she said.
First and foremost, however, the staff want people to examine and take responsibility for their spiritual wellbeing—and that’s what sets the Kapsowar dental clinic apart from other facilities in Kenya.
“We ask our patients about their faith and take prayer requests,” Abraham said. “We pray with every patient and that sometimes leads to conversations in which we share the Gospel, or the hospital chaplains present the Gospel.”
“We pray with every patient.”
One young man admitted he did not know Jesus. A chaplain came and talked to him in his language, sharing from Scripture and answering the man’s questions. The patient prayed that afternoon to receive Christ as his Savior.
“I sometimes tell my patients that, like your teeth, you have to get to the root of the problem, and that problem is sin,” explained Abraham. “Only Jesus can treat that problem.”
Encouraging Future Missionary Dentists
Dr. Felix Martin del Campo, a dentist from California, came in early December to give Abraham a helping hand for a couple of weeks. He has served with Samaritan’s Purse on more than 30 short-term trips, assisting in the setup of mobile dental clinics and delivering equipment and supplies. He also traveled to Kudjip Nazarene Hospital in Papua New Guinea in 2015 to help Sheena Li, a Post-Resident dentist, establish a clinic in the highlands.
“It excited me to see Caren devote time to devotions each morning, and she has a solid foundation in the Bible,” he said. “She will help her assistants grow in the knowledge of who God is, and I think they will all be salt and light to the patients at Kapsowar.”
Dr. Martin del Campo was delighted to have the opportunity to encourage the young dentist in her life’s calling. While the need for dental care is immense in many countries, the greatest need of every human heart is for the forgiveness and salvation that can only be provided by Christ.
That’s why he feels it is vital “to attract and develop a new generation of missionary doctors” as he shares his field experiences and patient stories in the United States. “I want to help students capture the vision for mission work,” he said.
As for Dr. Abraham, she thanked the Post-Residency Program for matching her specific skill set and desire to do hands-on ministry to a hospital that needed both.
“Starting a clinic in a Third World country is something that they don’t teach you in dental school,” she laughed. “The Post-Residency Program staff will push you to do something that you may think you can’t handle, and then they will help you to accomplish it.”