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If he builds it, they will come

California dentist constructs dental clinic in Philippines for underserved

May 27, 2016

By David Burger

Photo of Dr. Ed de la Vega in the Northern Samar province in the Philippines
Shared smiles: Dr. Ed de la Vega poses in April with children he and his team treated at a new dental clinic that opened in the Northern Samar province in the Philippines in April.

Pambujan, Northern Samar province, Philippines
— Dr. Ed de la Vega, a Canoga Park, California-based dentist and ADA member for more than 40 years, enjoyed his numerous trips abroad to serve the impoverished in the Philippines, the land in which he was born, but it wasn’t enough. He was frustrated that he wasn’t able to do more. He would always come home back to the States, knowing he was leaving behind many needing dental care.

So Dr. de la Vega decided to do something different.

On his latest trip to the Philippines in April, with the help of his nonprofit Dentistry For Every Village Foundation, he finished building a full-service dental clinic in the province of Northern Samar and turned it over to the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedictine, who are running the clinic.

The clinic served more than 400 people in the first two days of its opening. “Many of the patients, particularly the very young and those in their early teens, had never seen a dentist before,” he said. “One rather elderly lady even confessed to us that she has never visited a dentist in her entire life. And she was in her 60s.”

Dr. de la Vega’s success with that first clinic has spurred him to build another clinic in the Philippines, designed to help the indigenous Ati people in the Capiz province, in the central part of the country.

“For years, I wanted to do something to give back and make a difference,” Dr. de la Vega said. “But I could not do much as I had four kids to send to college. Now that my personal responsibilities at home are done, and I am in the twilight of my dental practice, I have more time to do my humanitarian work, much like my father did many years before me.”

Dr. de la Vega’s late father was a dentist in the Philippines. “Occasionally I would accompany him to rural areas in the country to do dental missions for the poorest of the poor,” Dr. de la Vega said. “Seeing the results of his work for the poor inspired me to do the same. It was then that I decided to follow his footsteps and went to dental school.”

After earning a D.M.D. degree from the University of the Philippines College of Dentistry and completing an internship in general dentistry in Montreal, Dr. de la Vega learned upon moving to the U.S. in 1968 that he wouldn’t be able to receive a dental license. He then enrolled and graduated from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry (now the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC).

“Going to USC for another dental degree and the privilege to take the licensing exams in California or any state in the country opened my eyes to what dentistry is all about,” he said. “It made me the dentist I am today.”

Being a dentist meant giving back, and over the years, he traveled to his homeland to attend Philippine Dental Association conventions (as well as to visit his mother’s gravesite). “I met many dentists from different corners of the country and heard stories about their struggles to provide dentistry,” Dr. de la Vega said. After many years of limited-time humanitarian missions, “I spoke to many friends in the Philippines and got ideas and advice as to how I can be most effective.

“That is when I found out that a religious order involved in health care and education on the island of Samir in the central Philippines was looking for help,” he continued. “I decided to help them since they recently built a small 25-bed hospital. More importantly, they were willing to provide a space for a dental clinic and were willing to manage the clinic. All they asked for was for me to build and equip the clinic.”

Construction of the clinic began in November, and after multiple visits from Dr. de la Vega and foundation volunteers, the clinic was completed, blessed and opened in April. A young dentist from the area and visiting dentists from the local Group A Dental Associates will staff the clinic, which will be open at least three days a week and features a digital dental X-ray system.

“The gleam in their eyes and the shy smiles on their faces after their problem is resolved speaks volumes,” Dr. de la Vega said. “It’s the best ‘thank you’ ever that I have received from anyone I have treated in my over 50 years of doing dentistry.”

Dr. de la Vega’s latest endeavor impressed one of his friends, Dr. Mary Satuito, assistant clinical professor at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. “Building the office to serve the indigent population of that province is a very big deal,” she said. “He’s a man of integrity. He looks out for people who need help, and he never gets tired of helping people. He gives so much of his time and resources  — it’s amazing.”

Learn more about the Dentistry For Every Village Foundation at dentistryforeveryvillagefoundation.com.

To learn about volunteer opportunities with other nonprofit organizations providing dental care to people in need around the world, visit the ADA Foundation’s International Volunteer Website: internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.