Dr. Raymond Damazo is 2014 Humanitarian Award recipient
January 20, 2014
By Stacie Crozier, ADA News staff
Portrait photo bottom left, copyright 2013 WSDA News· Photo by Meryl Schenker
For nearly 20 years, Dr. Raymond S. Damazo’s favorite dental office wasn’t an office at all. Driving a Land Rover with portable dental equipment and a massive amount of supplies in tow, Dr. Damazo and his wife Gail traveled to nearly two-dozen remote villages in Kenya and other parts of Africa twice a year, staying in tourist lodges and providing free dental care and education to thousands of people in need.
In recognition of his years as a bush dentist and the many significant humanitarian contributions he has made since, the ADA has chosen Dr. Damazo as the 2014 ADA Humanitarian Award recipient.
A dynamo at age 84, Dr. Damazo still spends a significant amount of time providing dental care at a clinic he established in Kenya in 2009. When ADA President Charles H. Norman called Dr. Damazo last month to let him know he’d been named the Humanitarian Award recipient, he had to leave a message and wait for a call back.
"It took me a few days to contact him because he was busy traveling in Africa, doing humanitarian work," said Dr. Norman.
The Damazos: Gail and Dr. Raymond Damazo pose for a photo in their North Bend, Wash., home where Gail’s artwork is hanging in the background. Copyright 2013 WSDA News· Photo by Meryl Schenker
During his years as a mobile dentist, Dr. Damazo’s portable office included a dental chair, compressors,lights and all the gear needed for a modern dental operatory, but also featured proximity to the stunning coastline of the Indian Ocean, the majestic African wildlife at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Maasai people, whose way of life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
"I chose Kenya because there is a great need for dental care, but also because it is such a beautiful place," Dr. Damazo said in an interview from his winter home in southern California. "And, if the truth be told, I’m a cheapskate. I like to get my money’s worth. I want to be productive. I know I can be my most productive when I am comfortable, so no matter what sacrifices I made to provide free dentistry to the people of Africa, I was happy to know I had a comfortable place to sleep, a nice meal and a good glass of wine at the end of the day."
Although Dr. Damazo was winding down from his practice in Bellevue, Wash., when he began his African adventures in 1987, signs of his calling had been evident since he was a young child.
One of 10 children born to Portuguese parents who emigrated from the Azores, Dr. Damazo remembers keenly that his mother would introduce him to her friends as "my son Ray, the dentist" when he was a young boy.
"It never occurred to us children not to live up to our parents’ aspirations for us," he said. "We were poor. We worked hard. Our parents picked our careers for us at a very young age. I have a brother who is a physician, another who is a minister. I think we have one of everything in our family, except for an undertaker!"
Bricks and mortar: The Maasai Dental Clinic at Siana Springs, pictured above, both inside and out, is a modern dental clinic with three operatories built near the Maasai Mara game reserve.
As a child, Dr. Damazo enjoyed the privilege of checking out books from the New Bedford, Mass., public library. His favorites—not surprisingly—were books that recounted the adventures of Dr. David Livingstone, the physician, missionary and African explorer.
"The thing that fascinated me most about Dr. Livingstone was that he went to Africa and provided medical help to those in need while indulging his sense of adventure."
Before embarking on his career in dentistry, Dr. Damazo majored in zoology, and seriously considered a career as a veterinarian. "I always had a love for animals and it was hard to choose between dentistry and veterinary medicine."
As a dentist, he had a thriving private practice in Frederick, Md., for 10 years and then in Bellevue from 1970-1995. He was active in organized dentistry, serving as president of the Frederick County Dental Society and in various offices for the King County Dental Society. He lectured on practice management for more than a decade.
In 1977, Dr. Damazo trained an American physician in emergency dental procedures in Brazil. The duo spent four months treating patients in remote areas of the Amazon.
About a decade later, his African adventure began. His experiences as a bush dentist and tourist in Kenya and beyond are detailed in his book, "Safari Dentist," which is available on Amazon.com.
"I wanted to write the book so an average person would enjoy and experience my patients, the dentistry, the animals and the travel," he said. "It’s not specifically a story about dentistry or just for dentists. I wanted it to appeal to folks interested in adventure."
At the age of 78, after spending two decades serving as a bush dentist, Dr. Damazo decided it was time to trade in the Land Rover for a brick-and-mortar clinic.
"I was getting older and I realized that the Maasai people near the Maasai Mara game reserve had a great need," said Dr. Damazo. "The area is 87 kilometers (about 54 miles) down a nightmarish dirt road from the nearest dentist. But it is also a beautiful spot. I wanted to do something permanent. And I wanted to choose a fantastic location to help recruit volunteer dentists. "
He selected a site near the game reserve, where lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, rhinoceros and giraffes roam and more than 450 species of birds fill the skies. Here visitors can see zebra, Thomson’s gazelle and wildebeest migrate to and from the Serengeti every year during the Great Migration.
The Maasai tribe leased a plot of land to Dr. Damazo’s charity for $1 a year for 33 years, and he and Gail funded and built the Maasai Dental Clinic at Siana Springs through their nonprofit charity, World Health Dental Organization. The modern, three-chair dental clinic includes an apartment upstairs to house volunteer dentists and two en suite bedrooms to house auxiliaries. It opened in 2009.
"The Maasai lifestyle is still very unchanged. Dentists who volunteer here get a total immersion in Maasai culture—the real Africa," Dr. Damazo said.
For the first two years, Dr. Damazo ran the clinic and recruited more than 60 volunteer dentists to serve 2- or 4-week rotations with the five Maasai staff members.
"I built the clinic with the idea that I would gift it to a university with an interest in global health care," he said. And in 2010, he gifted the clinic, debt free, to Loma Linda University School of Dentistry for use as a global teaching center that will serve an estimated 100,000 Maasai patients during the next three decades.
Dr. Damazo said he was surprised and happy to hear he had received the ADA Humanitarian Award. He also received a congratulatory call from the 2013 Humanitarian Award recipient and fellow Washington state dental colleague Dr. Sherwin Shinn.
Dr. Damazo said the inspiration for his humanitarian work is simple.
"I like to be active and productive. I like to help and do things that matter. I want my three daughters to know that the years between 60 and 80 can be your most productive years. You can do so much. My family genetics has programmed me this way. My mother always said, ‘you retire when they close the lid.’ "
Dr. Damazo also credits his accomplishments as a humanitarian to his wife Gail.
"We’ve been together for 20 years," he said. "She loves travel, she is very practical and she has been a tremendous helpmate for the whole thing. We have loved every minute of it."
The ADA Humanitarian Award was launched in 2007 and is the Association’s highest humanitarian honor. This prestigious award recognizes dentist members who have distinguished themselves by outstanding, unselfish leadership and at least a 10-year commitment to their fellow human beings in the field of dentistry, through the dedication of extraordinary time and professional skills to improve the oral health of underserved populations in the United States and abroad.
Dr. Norman will present Dr. Damazo with the ADA Humanitarian Award during the Opening General Session of the ADA 2014—America’s Dental Meeting in San Antonio in October. He will receive a $5,000 donation to the dental charity/project of his choice and a bronze statue.
For more information on Maasai Dental Clinic at Siana Springs, visit maasaidental.org.
The ADA Division of Global Affairs is now accepting nominations for the 2015 ADA Humanitarian Award. To download the nomination packet log on to the website.