Reaching out to the world
January 02, 2012
Broken Arrow, Okla.
—As a teenager volunteering at a missionary training center in Monterrey, Mexico, Dr. Ron Lamb was called on to help haul the center’s trash trailer to the city dump. The dumpster was filled with a week’s worth of kitchen waste, and he was horrified to see people driven by hunger picking through it, looking for scraps of food amid the waste.
Since then, Dr. Lamb has dedicated his life to helping those in need worldwide by providing dental care and collecting and distributing millions of dollars worth of dental equipment and supplies to thousands of international volunteer teams.
His efforts have been recognized with the 2012 ADA Humanitarian Award.
Jungle dentistry: Dr. Lamb, top, delivers anesthetic to a young patient in a one-room school in the Ecuadorian jungle. Patients from an Amazon village take a water taxi home after receiving treatment.
"Volunteering at age 16 was a defining moment in my life," said Dr. Lamb. "I distinctly still remember the filth, the smells, the many flies and the hunger of those poor people. It was overwhelming. I had never really seen poverty before. A little old lady in rags at my feet was grabbing pieces of bread and scraps of food to stuff in her mouth and eat. I had never seen such hunger and desperation for something to eat. It was at that moment I decided to get a profession that I could use to help impoverished people and relieve their pain. That experience was my motivation to pursue dentistry as a career."
After graduating from the University of Louisville School of Dentistry in 1974, Dr. Lamb opened a private practice in Broken Arrow, a suburb of Tulsa, Okla. He balanced his full-time practice by organizing and leading several mission trips to Mexico each year.
"We were making six to 11 mission trips per year, and during that time we built a medical and dental clinic there to serve as a base for our teams," said Dr. Lamb.
By 1985, he expanded his mission dentistry to countries in South America and also began helping other dental teams procure supplies and portable equipment.
"In 1991, I decided to close the practice, not sell it," he said. "We had just paid out of debt, had no savings but wanted to try doing mission work for a solid year without the practice. We were going to depend upon donations and if we made it one year then we would do a second and third year. If we made it three years living on donations, then we would not go back into private practice. We cut the financial lifelines of our private practice and it was a risk. But we have completed our 20th year of full-time service. Altogether, we have been doing this sort of work for 35 years."
Dr. Lamb has led nearly 200 mission trips in 56 countries during his career, from Mexico to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Amazon jungle. Through World Dental Relief, his charitable dental organization, he has also provided 5,291 medical and dental teams with more than $15 million worth of supplies. When he closed his practice in 1991, he used the space as the WDR offices and eventually purchased a large warehouse.
Disaster relief: Dr. Lamb pauses for a photo with 10 skids of surgical gloves that World Dental Relief had airlifted to hospitals in Haiti immediately after the 2010 earthquake.
"Receiving and distributing supplies sort of evolved out of our sharing the donated supplies we received with many other teams. It wasn’t planned. The donated dental supplies kept coming from generous companies, so we were able to supply more and more teams. But the quantities grew to the point where we needed a real warehouse with forklifts, tall shelving and loading docks for trucks."
World Dental Relief has also taken on special projects, including coordinating donations and shipping of dental equipment and a three-year cache of supplies needed to launch a dental school in Ethiopia. The organization has equipped more than 60 dental clinics and five prosthetic labs internationally.
"Big dental equipment is not a focus for us," he said. "We only help with equipment if we know of a specific need and can then obtain dental equipment for a specific project."
Dr. Lamb has also designed and created portable dental equipment and provided tons of supplies for use by relief agencies responding to disasters, including the Mission of Mercy after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Though World Dental Relief has enabled him to help hundreds of thousands of patients in need of dental care worldwide, his favorite volunteer activity allows him more one-on-one dental contact.
"Some of my favorite trips are to pack a backpack and duffle bag with everything I need to live in the jungle for a couple of weeks," Dr. Lamb said. "A Vietnam veteran and former Navy Seal and a dentist friend who lives at the headwaters of the Amazon River in Peru like to go with me on these trips. We catch an old riverboat or hire a launch to take us into one of the river tributaries upstream and work in Indian villages. Each trip is different. The native dentist does the planning and several workers go with us to help with languages, patients and obtaining food. Sometimes we have some pretty strange meals to eat. My Navy Seal friend feels at home in the jungle and eats things that I won’t touch.
"Those areas have big anaconda, boa, bushmaster and coral snakes; huge tarantulas, scorpions, army ants, piranha, jungle cats and more," he added. "So you must be familiar with the jungle animals and the diseases there, such as malaria, yellow and dengue fever, and then parasites. But I cannot ever remember being afraid, just cautious and always very aware of my surroundings. The natives know how to keep us informed and safe."
Treating tribes: Dr. Lamb sports the headdress and necklaces of a remote Amazon tribe as a young patient and his pet monkey look on.
Dr. Lamb’s wife, Pam, and their children Tina and Bobby not only support his charitable endeavors, they also work for World Dental Relief.
"We still take a very modest salary that our WDR board oversees," Dr. Lamb said. "My daughter Tina and son Bobby work with Pam and me now. At one time we had seven employees, but donations have been dropping these past three years and it has become necessary to cut back to what we can afford. Our children were small when I closed the practice, so they have grown up helping us with World Dental Relief. We always utilize local volunteers when we have needs or special projects like the Ethiopia dental school project."
Established in 2007, the ADA Humanitarian Award recognizes individual volunteer commitment and leadership that has had a broad impact on oral health and the improvement of the human condition. The award is given to an ADA member dentist who has contributed at least 10 years to alleviate human suffering, demonstrated significant leadership, served as an inspiration to others and established a legacy that is of ongoing value and benefit to those in need in the U.S. and abroad.
Supplies: Dr. Lamb checks the World Dental Relief warehouse inventory.
ADA President William Calnon called Dr. Lamb to let him know he was the Association’s 2012 Humanitarian Award recipient.
"I was struck by Dr. Lamb’s humility when I informed him of the decision of the Board of Trustees to bestow this honor upon him," said Dr. Calnon. "It was obvious that his actions are a result of a true love for his fellow man. As World Dental Relief’s home page states, ‘Dr. Ron Lamb has touched the hearts and lives of people throughout the world with compassionate dental care.’ His many contributions make him a perfect choice for the ADA Humanitarian Award."
"I was so surprised to get the call from Dr. Calnon," said Dr. Lamb. "I thought maybe he was calling about a volunteer project. I never expected to hear that I’d won the ADA Humanitarian Award. It’s a wonderful honor."
Dr. Lamb will receive a plaque and a $5,000 donation for World Dental Relief in October during the ADA’s 153rd annual session in San Francisco.
The ADA Division of Global Affairs is now accepting nominations for the 2013 ADA Humanitarian Award. To download the nomination packet log on to Humanitarian Award.
Long lines: Patients in Iquitos, Peru, form a line more than two blocks long in front of a temporary dental clinic. Patients waited in line overnight for treatment.