I remember a story I was told a long time ago about a man who would come out in the morning to pick up starfish on the beach to save them from the birds and other predators and throw them back into the sea. A friend watched him one day and asked why he would go to so much work to save these starfish when there were thousands maybe hundreds of thousands he wouldn’t be able to save in this fruitless endeavor. Bending to pick up a starfish as he then threw it into the sea he replied, “It will matter to that one.”
Our clinic cannot see all the missionaries who arrive in the MTC and stay for 2 ½ weeks. On intake day, Dr. Stewart and his wife check the missionaries’ teeth and give them a rating from 1 to 4. 1 being the most critical and 4 is ok. Lots of the missionaries have never seen a dentist or have been to one only when their teeth need to be extracted. Sugar is put into most of the products and brushing, flossing isn’t a tradition. The water is not good for drinking. As missionaries we are cautioned not to drink water unless it has been distilled or purified. The condition of a lot of these very young men and women’s teeth can make me cry.
The ones are put on a list and seen as quickly as possible. Dr. Stewart will numb one side of the mouth and do as much work as he can in an hour. Fillings, root canals, pulp caps, and sometimes extractions are all done in the allotted hour. We then make an appointment for the other side of the mouth. Of course the MTC has many classes and learning they cram into their 2 weeks, so to get everything accomplished is difficult. The missionaries categorized as 2 and 3s have an X-ray so Dr. Stewart can determine if anyone is headed for bone loss or cancer. If their x-rays turn up problems then they are re-categorized to a 1. The goal is to see and treat all the ones. I have watched Sister Stewart agonize about scheduling all the critical young men and women.
A young missionary walked in with her companion and friends and told me she had a toothache. I had to tell her to schedule an appointment through the MTC nurse because Dr. Stewart’s day was already full. Triage is painful sometimes, I felt like I was stepping on the starfish instead of picking it up. I want everybody to be cared for.
Dr. Stewart makes jokes about investigating one mouth at a time and saving teeth one missionary at a time. I told him the energizer bunny has nothing on his endurance. He routinely gets to the office at 5:30 am and sees the last patient of the day out the door around 5 or 5:30 pm. The clinic works Monday through Saturday except one Saturday a month. Often Dr. Stewart works right through lunch especially in emergency situations. Any time the MTC cannot send missionaries I email the missions around the office and have their missionaries come. He is unfailingly gentle, patient, and soft-spoken with a smile on his face. He has a way of singing, “Mabuti po” as he works away on each missionary’s teeth.
Only Dr. Stewart can work because there is no other dentist here. I pray for him during the day sometimes that he’ll have endurance and any heavenly help that he needs to accomplish his goals.
Starfish and missionaries – saving them one at a time.