LILONGWE, Malawi - Col. Sheldon “Shel” Omi, dental officer in charge of MEDREACH 11 and commander of the 302nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Denver, Colo., performs a dental procedure on a Malawian patient May 6, 2011.
LILONGWE, Malawi – A busy road. A packed red clay path. School children commuting. Three Airmen helping. This describes an unlikely meeting between three Airmen of the 908th Aeromedical Staging Squadron and the 302nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron and Malawian citizens at the Partners in Hope Medical Centre, nearly 30 minutes from the bustling Lilongwe city center. Together, the Airmen impacted the lives of many Malawian citizens by providing much needed dental treatment.
The Airmen debated over whether or not to cross the road out of concern for causing the children to be late for school, but ultimately decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.
According to Staff Sgt. Amy L. Montgomery, of the 908th Aeromedical Staging Squadron in Montgomery, Ala., there seemed to be a mutual curiosity between both the Airmen and the children.
“When we crossed the road it was just amazing how they approached us and wanted to be right up on us and to have their picture taken,” said Master Sgt. Teresa J. Morgan, a dental non-commissioned officer in charge of the 908th Aeromedical Staging Squadron.
“All the kids came and wanted to be a part of what was happening. They were so happy,” said Col. Sheldon “Shel” Omi, commander of the 302nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron. “It was just amazing because all of us were like magnets. A lot of them just wanted to shake my hand. It was so much fun.”
According to Omi, of Denver, Colo., it was the smiles and laughter from the bustling group Malawian of children that made him smile. Impacted by the reaction of the schoolchildren, he and his teammates crossed the road determined to bring smiles to the lives of others as well.
The Airmen are visiting Malawi as part of a joint humanitarian medical exercise called MEDREACH 11. Taking time out of their already hectic exercise schedules, the team carved out a few hours to help patients at the clinic.
Walking into the clinic lobby, the Airmen were greeted with the songs sung by a mostly Malawian medical staff. Drawn to the gathering, they listened in on a brief meeting led by Partners in Hope Director Dr. Perry Jansen, who says that while funding for his clinic is important, the connection between volunteers and patients is key.
“I think for many Malawians there is not a face or an experience to strengthen the existing connection through the funds received,” said Jansen. “Money is great, but I think that sending people and having people actually meet with Malawians is a great idea. It personalizes the impact that America has in Malawi to individual experiences and I am sure that people will tell of those experiences. I think it’s a very welcomed thing.”
Partners in Hope Medical Centre is a multi-faceted clinic that provides X-ray, ultrasound, laboratory, physical therapy, and dentistry. There is also a HIV clinic that provides medical and dental support patients suffering from HIV at no charge and a private clinic that offers anything except surgery and trauma care at a small fee.
For many Malawians, the ability to see a dentist could mean the difference between living a functional life and being debilitated by constant pain. For the staff at Partners in Hope, Omi and his dental technicians arrived just at the right time.
“If someone has a bad tooth or an infected tooth it could affect their jaw and affect their whole well-being,” said Omi. “They wouldn’t be able to chew, some people can’t sleep at night, and some people can’t go to work because they have a bad tooth. It can really affect their lives.”
While a large part of the treatments focused on cleanings, fillings, and extractions, each patient received an individual assessment from the dental staff to determine the best course of action. Led by Dr. Themba Nyrienda, Omi and his team aimed to care for and help as many people as possible.
“I had a problem with my teeth and one of them had become damaged,” said Dorcus Mnthambala, a local Malawian citizen. “The doctor saved my one tooth and then was able to clean the rest of them. I am happy, so happy.”
The marked appreciation expressed by the patients continually motivated the Air Force providers to do their very best. Thanks to the efforts of the Airmen, Nyrienda said Partners in Hope had never treated that many people in one day.
Staff Sgt. Amy L. Montgomery of Columbus, Ga. wondered if one of her patients was mad because of the dental procedure, but instead was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a smile.
“One of the patients I had said she was not mad. She was happy,” said Montgomery. “We did something. We actually helped somebody.”
The Airmen walked away at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment. They represented their fellow Americans well, but more importantly they touched the lives of Malawians and brought smiles to their faces.
“I think this will have a lasting impact on the people’s hearts toward what America is and who we are as Americans.” said Jansen.