Skip to main content
Toggle Menu of ADA WebSites
ADA Websites
Toggle Search Area
Toggle Menu
e-mail Print Share

Dr. Sherwin R. Shinn to receive ADA Humanitarian Award

December 17, 2012

Dr. Sherwin Shinn, left, has spent 22 years providing dental care, prevention education, health care worker training and advocacy in some 40 countries around the world.
Gig Harbor, Wash.—On the last day of a six-week mountain-climbing vacation in the Himalayas in 1990, Dr. Sherwin R. Shinn was 11,500 feet above sea level when he realized his life's mission was to save lives by providing dental care and education to the less fortunate in his community and worldwide.

Dr. Shinn, a staff dentist at Lindquist Dental Clinic for Children in Tacoma, Wash., and founder of three international dental charities, has received the 2013 ADA Humanitarian Award.

Global influence: Dr. Sherwin R. Shinn, above with a young patient and in the operatory with a chimpanzee in an African sanctuary, has spent more than two decades working to improve the oral health of people in some 40 countries worldwide.

Mobile clinic: Dr. Shinn's outreach has extended to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwest Uganda, where he set up a dental clinic in a school. 
“On the very last day of my trip in Nepal, I heard a little child crying in the lodge I was staying in,” remembered Dr. Shinn. “It was the first time in six weeks I'd heard a child in distress. I followed the sound and came to a room where a very young girl was crying and her aunt and uncle were looking in her mouth.”

African scenery: Dr. Shinn used his camera to document the scenery on his way to and from work during his trips. 
After being in tourist mode for a month and a half, Dr. Shinn said he watched the family and a light bulb went off in his head. He suddenly remembered he was a dentist and could help figure out what was wrong.

“She was a five-year-old girl and was swollen from temple to armpit with a life-threatening, systemic infection caused by abscessed teeth,” he said. “She was miserable and would probably die without some help.”

Himalayan adventure: A youngster waits in the dental chair for treatment during Dr. Shinn's first outreach trip to Nepal. 
Dr. Shinn was planning to spend part of his last day visiting Hillary Hospital in Khunde, founded by mountain climber, explorer and philanthropist Sir Edmund Hillary. The hospital was 2,000 feet up from the lodge. Dr. Shinn convinced the girl's relatives to let him take little Sonam Sherpa to the hospital to see if a doctor could help her.

Family: Dr. Shinn is surrounded by his wife and children, from left, Shaleena, Yasmeen, Tomar, Jim-Nasser and his wife Faria. Dr. Shinn met Faria while volunteering in Uganda.

“I was scared,” he said. “She was really sick. I had to climb up 2,000 feet with her and I prayed all the way that nothing bad would happen to her while she was in my care.”

When they arrived, Dr. Shinn said the doctor encouraged him to treat the girl himself. After digging around for awhile, the doctor handed Dr. Shinn a shoebox filled with broken dental instruments rusted together and covered with a fuzzy mold.

“He told me, 'you are a dentist, so you will know what to do.' There was no electricity or sterilization. No sutures. He handed me some glass vials with Chinese writing that I hoped was anesthetic. All I had was my pocket knife. It was an awkward situation. This was a hospital, and they didn't have anything for dental emergencies.”

Dr. Shinn said the courageous little girl didn't cry and made it through the extractions with flying colors. Other people at the hospital asked him to look at their teeth, too.

“When it was time to go, I was a little frustrated,” he said. “I had planned to take a picture of the sunset on Mount Everest and was running out of time to do that. I thought I would need to carry weakened Sonam back down the steep hill. We walked to the edge of the mountain and could see her village 2,000 feet below. When she recognized her house, she suddenly started running down the rocky switchbacks like an antelope. I was in the best physical shape of my life but there was no way I could have caught up with her! Somehow she knew she'd be ok now and was happily running back home.

“I stood in wonderment watching her and I felt an immense feeling of shame come over me,” said Dr. Shinn. “How dare I be selfish enough to worry about taking a photo when kids were dying here every day from abscessed teeth? Tears were streaming down my face. I thought, 'I need to do something about this.'“

Dr. Shinn vowed he would return to Nepal with toothbrushes and educate teachers and families about the importance and the process of preventive oral health care.

“When I got home I started collecting toothbrushes. I went back 18 months later. A simple toothbrush there is a lifesaving tool. It is such a powerful thing to hand out. I saw the value of it and I was hooked. I wanted to do more.”

He now averages about four international trips a year with volunteer teams providing dental care, teaching oral hygiene, training and supplying local providers, and improving maternal and infant health by upgrading conditions in rural labor and delivery rooms. He jokingly admits he feels very at home on an airplane. Since 1990 he has volunteered in some 40 countries, including Costa Rica, Bolivia, the Cook Islands, Micronesia, Guatemala, Jamaica and Uganda.

At home in Washington State, he served as the dental director and is now a staff dentist for Lindquist Dental Clinic for Children, a community-based, private non-profit clinic that sees over 30,000 patient visits each year by children from low-income families.

“The volume of patients at the clinic speaks to the demand even in the United States,” Dr. Shinn said. “We take care of them, give them a positive experience and give their parents a place to bring their children without worrying about how much it will cost. The per capita income in our area is higher than the national average and we still have a tremendous need. I can't imagine what it's like in more depressed areas suffering from the effects of today's economy.”

Early on, Dr. Shinn set up a nonprofit foundation to establish dental health education and outreach programs in developing countries. He has trained and mentored hundreds of volunteers and says that many of them have gone on to start their own programs.

“I love to help other people have the same experience. It takes a lot of time to get people ready for their trips, from travel arrangements and accommodations to other details. You want it to be easy and predictable for volunteers, so they can show up and get right to work. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would have grown into what it's like today. It's humbling to see how people are afflicted and know that you have the capability to fix it. That's what we dentists do.”

He tells colleagues that volunteering leads to fulfillment, whether you're ladling out a meal in a local soup kitchen, serving as a big brother or big sister or working at a Special Olympics event.

“You don't have to crawl through the jungle to find fulfillment,” he said. “It's right outside your door. And volunteering makes life so much more delicious and exciting and worth living. When you work for money, you can have all the things money can buy. When you work unconditionally, you get to have all the things money can't buy.”

In 2002 he worked with Great Shape!, a nonprofit organization that provides health care and education in Jamaica, to establish the 1000 Smiles Project—one of the world's largest international humanitarian dental projects that serves 15,000 Jamaicans each year.

“We are in our 10th year with 1000 Smiles and the model we developed focuses on prevention, training local health care workers, and lobbying with local governments to spend their health care budgets on prevention instead of emergency care. This model should be able to work in other countries and make an impact beyond the level of an individual village,” he said. “At first it was exciting to me to go to a remote area and provide dental care. I was an adventurer. Treating Pygmies in Africa was an amazing experience, for instance. But as I get older, I see that having more people get involved in changing the culture of health care delivery in a country has a much more significant impact.”

Dr. Shinn's travels also had a significant impact on his personal life. While volunteering in Uganda, he met his wife Faria. The couple have four children, Jim-Nasser, age 8; Yasmeen, age 6; Shaleena, age 5; and Tomar, age 2. Dr. Shinn also has two grown children, Josef and Michael, and four grandchildren.

“Having little kids around changes your perspective,” he said. “Being with them changes your mindset, which in turn changes your body, making you younger. I've got to be able to play baseball with them. I can't lie around in my spare time anymore!”

It has been 22 years since Dr. Shinn treated Sonam Sherpa in Nepal. She recovered from her infection and went on to become a national badminton champion in Nepal. A few years ago, she and her parents and her sister moved to Ashford, Washington—about an hour and a half away from Dr. Shinn. She just graduated from nursing school and her sister sometimes babysits for Dr. Shinn's children.

“My life changed totally in Nepal that day, and for the better,” said Dr. Shinn. “I lived in an upper middle class community where people went to the dentist and had insurance. The vast majority of the world is suffering from a lack of dental care and a lack of understanding about it.

“The best jobs in developing countries are service industry jobs. It doesn't matter how qualified you are, you won't get the job if you don't have a pleasing smile. A nice smile adds to the ability to get a good job and take care of your family. If you teach preventive care to your children, they will have better nutrition and be healthier because they can chew painlessly. They will learn better in school, and have stronger immune systems. The cycle of dental disease impacts a family's success and longevity. But we know how to take care of it. We can change lives.”

Dr. Shinn has received many accolades for his work, including the Washington State Dental Association 2003 Citizen of the Year and the 2003 National Jefferson Award, the nation's highest honor for public service. He is the co-founder of “International Smile Power”, and the co-founder and current president of “For World Wide Smiles”, which is planning trips to Uganda, Jamaica, and Haiti in 2013. He is also the author of “Confessions of a Modern Dentist” and lectures on How To Make Your Dreams Come True, Raising Self-Esteem and Empowering Yourself and Others, and Maximizing The Fulfillment Factor In Dentistry and Life Through Volunteerism.

“I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Shinn for his contributions to the dental profession, and congratulate him on being the 2013 recipient of the American Dental Association Humanitarian Award,” said Dr. Robert A. Faiella, ADA president. “This prestigious award is designed to recognize an ADA member who has made a lasting impact on the oral health of their fellow human beings. It is clear that Dr. Shinn has changed the lives of individuals, and motivated other health care professionals to get involved and to give their time and resources to those in need.”

“I can't say how humbled and appreciative I am to receive this award,” Dr. Shinn said. “When Dr. Faiella called me, I had tears running down my face. I was so amazed by this huge honor and I so much appreciate it. I will make sure I continue to work to deserve it. I'm really, really blown away by the whole thing.”

Dr. Shinn will receive a plaque and a $5,000 donation to For World Wide Smiles during the ADA's 154th annual session in New Orleans Oct. 31-Nov. 3.

The ADA Division of Global Affairs is now accepting nominations for the 2014 ADA Humanitarian Award. To download the nomination packet log on to “ADA Humanitarian Award Nomination Packet (PDF)“.