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Dentist, educator's impact reaches critically ill children in Saudi Arabia

May 09, 2013

By Stacie Crozier, ADA News staff

Hospitality: Dr. Lambert shares iftar, the evening breakfast meal held during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, with some local residents.

Clinic: Non-Saudi dental assistants who work in the King Faisal Hospital Dental Clinic pose with Dr. Lambert for a photo.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—A connection with a former dental student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry offered Dr. Lance Lambert a chance to treat children with complicated medical issues more than 7,000 miles from his Glen Ellyn, Ill. pediatric dental office.

Dr. Lambert said his two recent trips to work at King Faisal Hospital dental clinic—in July 2012 and again in February—were arranged at the request of one of his former students, Zikra Alkayal.

Dr. Alkayal, a Saudi citizen, earned her dental degree at King's College in London and earned her pediatric dentistry certificate and masters degree from UIC dental school about 15 years ago. Dr. Lambert said she has been inviting Dr. Lambert to visit the King Faisal facility for more than a decade.

“But the timing just wasn't right for a long time,” said Dr. Lambert. “I had a family and was really busy. But it was always in the back of my mind as something I could do. Now my children are grown and married and Dr. Alkayal was planning a year-long sabbatical, so she encouraged me to come and help in her absence.”

After a lengthy process to apply for a visa with the hospital as a sponsor, Dr. Lambert was ready to go. He enjoyed his summer trip so much he cleared the decks to go again in February. He worked with patients who were battling illnesses like cancer or heart problems, or needed bone marrow and organ transplants, to help them get cleared for their treatments.

“Kids who are severely immunocompromised could die from an infection, including a dental infection, so it's critical that they receive the dental care they need,” he said.

Dr. Lambert said his most memorable patient was a girl with a brain tumor. “She needed an extraction and she was very anxious,” he said. “When I started to give her an injection, I thought she was reaching to stop me, but she was reaching for the dental assistant's hand. Then after I finished treating her, she held my hand. After that, I went home and cried. Sometimes it's very, very hard to watch sick children deal with all the difficult things that come with treating their illness.”

Respect: A sign hangs on the dental clinic door when an older girl or woman is receiving dental treatment.
Dr. Lambert likens the Saudi hospital and research center to the Mayo Clinic in the U.S.—a hub for specialized treatment. Its dental clinic has 35 chairs and offers general dentistry, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontic, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthodontic, endodontic and periodontic services. It has four pediatric dentists on staff. The physicians are trained in Western medicine, he added, and much of the staff speaks English and charting is also done in English.

“Language was one of my more interesting challenges,” he said. “I speak absolutely no Arabic, but I had people to help translate when communicating with children and families.”

He learned early on that cultural conventions dictate that he speak with a child's father because it's considered disrespectful for a man to speak directly to a woman. Young girls wear clothing similar to their Western counterparts—maybe shorts and a t-shirt, but after a girl reaches about age 15, he added, she begins the tradition of covering her body with a head covering called a hijab head, a full black cloak, or abaya, and a face-veil called a niqab.

“When the dental clinic treats women, they obviously need to remove their niqab. So the dental staff will close the door and post a sign that asks for privacy because a woman is being treated. They have a very strong sense of modesty.”

Dr. Lambert says the most important thing he learned is that Americans and Saudis have more similarities than differences.

“People are people, anywhere you go. They want to live peacefully, raise their families, enjoy life. We have universal needs of food, shelter and family. But kids like to laugh and joke and play no matter where they are. I found everyone to be amazingly hospitable. Very welcoming and friendly.”

To learn about international volunteer opportunities, visit the ADA International Volunteer Webpage or call the ADA Division of Global Affairs, ext. 2726.