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Providing ‘opportunity to live a happy life’

Oral surgeon’s charitable efforts underscore impact of dental volunteerism

May 31, 2018

By Jean Williams

Dr. Joli Chou
Compassion up close: Dr. Joli Chou often volunteers on the medical team of Mercy Ships, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides care to people in need around the world.
Philadelphia — Dental volunteerism can take a practitioner next door or half way around the world, and Dr. Joli Chou has traversed the globe charitably contributing her skills in South America, Europe and Africa.

She’s seen up close how the level of need can change dramatically, depending on where you go.

Dr. Chou is most frequently a member of the floating volunteer medical team — a veritable village — that is Mercy Ships. The Texas-based, global nonprofit organization operates what it calls “the world’s largest civilian hospital ship providing state-of-the-art care to those in desperate need — free of charge.”

Many of the patients Dr. Chou has seen on the organization’s Africa Mercy vessel, in such countries as Benin, have conditions that have essentially been addressed in developed nations.

“A lot of these people, either with cleft lip or palate, they can’t function normally in society because they get shunned,” Dr. Chou said. “Just because they can’t afford surgery, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to live a happy life. A lot of these people hide their faces. They wear coverings because they have either a cleft lip or palate or tumors on their faces.”

Dr. Chou practices at Jefferson University Hospitals and is a faculty member at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. She last set sail in February to Douala, Cameroon, with Mercy Ships, and has volunteered two weeks annually on its Africa Mercy for six years. While her dental and medical skills are essential to American patients, 6,000 miles away, working from a vessel stationed for 10-month stints along the African coast, Dr. Chou’s gifted hands provide next-level transformations in the lives of many desperately poor people.

Aside from cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, she also treats other diseases and conditions of the head and neck that affect people in developing countries, including benign pathologies that result in out of control odontogenic tumors of the upper and/or lower jaw, such as ameloblastomas.

She also often treats debilitating ankylosis. “A lot of times, we encounter patients who cannot open their mouths because their temporomandibular joints are fused to the skull base, probably due to trauma or an infection when they were younger,” she said. “We provide surgeries to allow them to open their mouths.

“In addition to that, there’s one condition which is very specific to Third World, or developing countries, which is an infection that can cause later facial deformities. It’s called noma. It’s a necrotizing type of infection. In developed countries, we don’t see those conditions anymore. It’s a condition that particularly affects people who are malnourished and who do not have access to antibiotics. For the people who survived that condition in Africa, they end up with disfiguring conditions of their faces where a lot of the soft tissue dies and then they have scar tissue around their mouths or around their noses. A lot of times because of these scars and contractures, they can’t open their mouths.”

Dr. Chou plans to set sail in January on the Africa Mercy, this time to Conakry, Guinea. Aside from her volunteerism with Mercy Ships, Dr. Chou has also donated her services to Smiles International, which takes her annually to Mexico, and other missions, including one recently in Armenia. She sees the missions, which she often self-funds and must bring her own equipment to, as a confluence of long-held goals and interests.

“I’ve always kind of been interested in development and helping people,” Dr. Chou said. “I don’t think I consciously orchestrated this in my life, to do this. Between college and dental school, I did some development work in South America, and I kind of felt that’s what I’m going to do at some point, not even thinking about going to dental school and how that’s going to allow me to do that. But it all worked out, I guess.”

Dentists interested in volunteering abroad for the first time might do well to consider a few key pieces of advice from Dr. Chou. “Some mission trips are more organized than others,” she said. “Mercy Ships is fairly organized. Most of the time, I don’t have to bring any instruments or equipment or anything I’ve got. They have it. You have to be somewhat flexible and adaptive to whatever instruments they have there and use what they have. But, at least you don’t have to worry about not having the correct drills — or at least some kind of drill for you to do your dental work or your surgical work. But there are some organizations where equipment might not necessarily be provided, and you might have to bring your own equipment or improvise the equipment or get donations to take equipment.”

There are many other considerations, Dr. Chou said, including challenges related to postoperative care, cultural differences and living conditions. Key, too, is managing and maximizing time.

“You have to consider the length of your trip and whether or not there’s going to be follow-up — who’s going to be there for follow-up if there is complication from your surgery or from your treatment?” she said. “Can you complete treatment while you’re there, depending on the time?”
Mercy Ships offer life-saving and life-altering surgeries in some of the world’s poorest countries. The Africa Mercy, currently the only Mercy Ships vessel in service, includes five operating theaters, recovery, intensive-care and low-dependency wards and 80 patient beds. On board are some 400 medical personnel, including physicians, dentists, nurses and other medical practitioners, but also administrative and other essential crew.

For more information on Mercy Ships, visit their website at For more information on volunteering internationally, visit the ADA Foundation International Volunteer website, ADA 2018 – America’s Dental Meeting in Honolulu will offer a course entitled: Volunteer Internationally: Build Sustainable Oral Health Programs (8302) on Oct. 21 from 7:30-10 a.m. during ADA 2018 Honolulu. To register or learn more about ADA 2018, visit