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Borneo dentist, patients work to save rainforest, orangutans

Sukadana, Indonesia—In March, the ADA Division of Global Affairs received an unusual request from an American physician working with the nongovernmental organization Health In Harmony in this village on the west coast of the island of Borneo.

Image: Orangutans in the Gunung Palung National Park near Sukadana, Indonesia
Image: Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu
Endangered: Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu and her patients work to conserve the rainforest and orangutans in the Gunung Palung National Park near Sukadana, Indonesia. A U.S. dental supplier donated a new headlamp to support her efforts.

“I’m writing to you because our dentist, Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu, needs a new headlamp,” Jenny Blair, M.D. wrote. “She’s been using what I can only assume is an antiquated one with a face mask and a gigantic battery pack, and as eventually happens with most elderly electronic devices in this wet climate, it has quit. Now she is relying on camping headlamps that don’t have face shields, nor loupes for magnification. Unfortunately, new ones are extremely hard to come by in this remote area, and our budget is very limited, since the care we provide is subsidized by grants and donations.”

Thanks to a donation from Henry Schein Dental, Dr. Ompusunggu is now using a new headlamp that arrived in Borneo last month—about 12,000 miles from Schein’s headquarters in Mellville, N.Y.

“Dr. Hotlin is using her new headlamp. She loves it,” Dr. Blair reported June 7. “She told me, ‘I have to get used to being able to see so closely!’ Her old headlamp had a magnifier but it was too heavy to wear. She said this allows her to see much better and more easily.”

“Dr. Hotlin sees between three and 10 patients a day, three days a week, approximately 48 weeks a year unless she’s traveling,” said Dr. Blair. “Some come from many hours away, from villages around the rainforest or offshore islands; we are the best-equipped dental office in town. She says she often has to perform several procedures on the same patient in a day, since it’s not always clear they’ll be able to come back (transport is difficult for the poor people of this area). Common procedures include root canals, fillings, cleanings and extractions. She does a lot of patient education and hands out a lot of toothbrushes. Toothbrushes are so prized in this area that children, when given a choice between a small toy and a toothbrush, almost always choose the toothbrush.”

Dr. Ompusunggu cares not just for Sukadana citizens’ oral health but considers herself a caretaker and conservationist for the nearby rainforest.

Sukadana is the gateway to the Gunung Palung National Park, where one of the world’s oldest rainforests is home to a large population of endangered orangutans. But in recent years, the rainforest—and the orangutan population—have been shrinking dramatically due to illegal logging, expansion of mining and palm oil farming and poaching of the canopy-dwelling great apes.

Dr. Ompusunggu came to Sukadana excited to start an oral health program in the community through Health In Harmony, a nongovernmental organization that provides health care to some 60,000 underserved people in the area. She soon learned that her help in mentoring other rainforest “guardians” in the village is just as vital as the care she provides in the dental chair.

“Before I came here, I was always wondering and almost skeptical about why donors or organizations spend money to protect orangutans while so many people live in very poor conditions,” said Dr. Ompusunggu. “But now my eyes are opened as to how orangutans are important to us. They are the ‘farmers’ of the forest, as they are planting some of the seeds in the forest so the trees keep growing. When the forest is protected the community will also have a watershed for their needs. They need water for farming, household use, drinking and even brushing teeth.”

Image: A young patient brings a seedling to barter for health care services
Conservationist: A young patient brings a seedling to barter for health care services
Dr. Ompusunggu worked to implement the ideas of village leaders who wanted to empower their citizens to act as forest guardians, monitoring the national park to protect the rainforest from illegal logging. She accepts payment for dental care in the forms of manure, seedlings and other materials that can be used to conserve the rainforest or to enhance the village’s organic garden.

“In this way we hope to decrease illegal logging to pay for health care,” she said. “When I have my patients come to me, I am not only focused on their dental problems. I do not see them merely as a patient but as a partner to work together to heal the world. When they pay the bills with seedlings or manure, saving teeth is also saving the forest. This is an effective and innovative solution toward healthier people and the environment.”

She hopes that the village’s conservation efforts can continue to grow and benefit others on a global scale.

“What happens here will affect the other parts of the world,” said Dr. Ompusunggu. “If we lose our rainforests in Indonesia it will affect the whole world. Because we are living on one planet, we are all responsible locally and globally to find solutions and only by working together can we achieve a healthy planet for all. I believe that even a very small contribution from anybody can help to heal the planet.”

“Through Henry Schein Cares, our company’s global corporate social responsibility program, we seek to enhance access to health care for underserved and at-risk communities around the world,” said Stanley M. Bergman, chairman and chief executive officer, Henry Schein Inc. “We are grateful to our generous supplier partner, Heine, for making this donation possible. We are impressed by Dr. Ompusunggu’s work to enhance access to oral health care for the people of Borneo as well as her efforts to protect the surrounding rainforests and wildlife. Dr. Ompusunggu’s impact on her community truly exemplifies our core mission of ‘helping health happen.’ ”

For more information on international oral health programs, call the ADA Division of Global Affairs 1-312-440-2726, email international@ada.org or visit the website http://internationalvolunteer.ada.org. For more information on the NGO, Health In Harmony, visit www.healthinharmony.org.