Dentist Without Borders PDF Print E-mail
Written by Suki Wessling   


Families take all sorts of vacations, but local dentist Dr. Nanette Benedict’s family’s destinations are a little unusual: Guatemala, Uganda, Haiti, Ecuador.


What this family of five does on vacation is a little out of the ordinary as well. Rather than being tourists, they travel in order to help the poor.


“I’ve been involved in volunteer work most of my life,” explains Dr. Benedict, who  has volunteered her dental services around the world. “Then when I started having kids, it was too complicated to figure out how to do that.”


Once her children were teens, it occurred to her that she could start her volunteer

work again. But unlike other parents who might want to leave the kids at home, she and her husband decided to make it a family affair.


“The first trip I took my kids on, they were 13, 18, and 20,” Dr. Benedict remembers. “Jacob said, ‘Mom, this is the kind of vacation we should always do, where we help people and we have a really good time.’ There’s something really touching about when you’re there not just as a tourist.”


After that first trip, the family was hooked. As her children grew, they attained their own skills that they’d bring along. Her oldest son became a dentist and now works alongside his mother to provide free dental care. Her husband and other two children bring their own skills.


“There’s always something to do in a third world country,” Dr. Benedict says. “Jacob, my second son, he’s a real tech person like my husband so they fix everything. My husband said, ‘They’ll remember me longer than you because I fixed the toilets’!”


Doing dentistry in Third World countries is not for the faint of heart. The first problem involves transporting the equipment. For their recent trip to a refugee camp in Uganda, the group hauled nearly twenty 50-pound bins to the airport. Their own luggage had to fit into a carry-on. Dr. Benedict’s family were accompanied by Jacob's girlfriend who assists Dr. Benedict, her friend Anne Hayden from Aptos who admitted patients and sterilized equipment, and Sherwin Shinn, DDS, the trip’s organizer, with his wife, Faria Shinn, who assisted him.


Dr. Benedict has invested in dental equipment specially designed for fieldwork. All she needs is a shelter with electricity, and she’s lucky to get even that.


“In Uganda, we were in a van thirteen hours on this crummy dirt road to get where we needed to be,” she explains. “We used a building that has walls and windows and you could lock your dental stuff in it, but no electricity.”


In a country that poor, she felt lucky to be able to provide her services.


“The thing about Uganda is that the refugees there are welcomed, but they live as poorly as the people do,” Dr. Benedict explains. “Any services available to the refugees have to be available to Ugandans. The locals live in dirt stick huts. When you are a refugee you are given a 30-by-30 plot of land, a jerry can for water, a hoe, and some roofing material. And then you just kind of make yourself a life.”


The lack of dental care has an extreme daily impact on the poor around the world.


“In Uganda, we pulled lots of teeth that were so decayed out they were in pieces,” she says. “There are kids whose baby teeth are abscessed, their face is all swollen and they’re crying.”


But despite the severity of the need she saw in Africa, she credits the traditional lifestyle with some advantage.


“In Mexico, they have much more access to sugar candy and American goods so they have more tooth decay,” she explains. “In Haiti I saw lots of new front teeth coming in decayed. In Uganda, they can’t afford to buy pre-packaged stuff.”


Dr. Benedict says that her children learned a lot going to remote locations in the world, and that her patients also learned from them.


“Unless you get out of our culture and go somewhere else, you don’t get what a cushy life we have,” she says. “That’s so eye-opening. People think we’re so wonderful, we came for no reason except just to be helpful. We’re good ambassadors for being American.”


Next year, Dr. Benedict’s family will stay closer to home and visit Jamaica. She says that she particularly looks forward to working with kids, “Because they’re kids, and they laugh!”


Dr. Benedict is Vice President of the nonprofit organization For World Smiles, which gratefully accepts donations for their work.


“These smiles that come back to us are so rewarding—it fills your heart,” Dr. Benedict explains. “There’s no religion involved—this is just heart and soul to be a human being.”


For more information: Visit For World Smiles at http://worldwidesmilesinc.org/ or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Happysmiles/ 

or Dr. Benedict at www.scottsvalleydentist.com


Suki Wessling is a local author and the mother of two children.  You can find more information about her writing and her new chapter book, Hanna, Homeschooler, at www.SukiWessling.com.

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 May 2016 04:19
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