Paul Kotala is a local dentist who’s making a difference. He is the founder of Tooth Aid Inc. which is set up to provide quality dentistry to people who would otherwise have limited access in developing countries.
Where did you study dentistry?
I studied at Sydney University. I also studied Science at Sydney.
Where are you practicing these days?
I had a practice in Mossman, Sydney. I sold this in 2002 and went backpacking through Central America and Asia.
I am currently Clinical Consultant with HNEAHS, living in Armidale. I also work with the Australian Dental Association in conjunction with the Aust Red Cross to provide dental work for refugees in the community who are not able to access dental work either privately and publicly.
Why did you start Tooth Aid?
From the middle ‘90s, I tried to find out about aid work undertaken by Australians. It was not well publicised, but I eventually found someone who was able to give me information. I wanted to give back to those people who could not get the same opportunities as we have in Australia. I looked at Laos and Cambodia while I was travelling, as they were the poorest countries in Asia. Unfortunately, there were very few dental programs being undertaken in the village communities.
Work in Nambak district of Luang Prabang province was very opportunistic. I had a friend who was living in Luang Prabang, and I visited him. He was on the way to Nambak district hospital, so I tagged along with him. He knew about me looking for some aid work, and the Director of the hospital said he didn’t have a dentist and asked if I could help. They had a mirror and probe.
I set up a potential program while I was travelling through Vietnam and forwarded this on. It was accepted, and Dr Fred (he worked with the Swiss Red Cross) asked when I could come. Suddenly, I had to give a date and get things going.
We built a dental clinic in 2006 and employed a Laos dentist and dental nurse. We regularly train medical people to undertake acute care in the remote villages. To date, we have trained 7 Laos people. In December, we also take Australian dental students.
Tell us about your very first mission?
I had nothing at the start. I was a member of the organising committee for the Federation Dentistry International, which was in Sydney in 2003. I organised for donations of material and equipment. I had also purchased some dental instruments in the markets in Myanmar Burma. When I left Sydney in November 2003, I had 65 kg of equipment. It was difficult, as no-one knew if there was a need of dentistry, if the work was valued and what sort of work would be needed.
I talked to Fred and asked him how many people he expected. His response was, “Well … it could be 10 or 100”. It ended up being 360 people in 7 days, and we removed 630 teeth. The work was undertaken on verandahs and in grass fields. They were coming and often waiting a few hours for treatment, watching what was going on and talking to other people.
There was one village that did not want work to be undertaken, as they believed they would go blind. We saw 16 people that time, and two visits later we saw 89 people – and they could all see! The colour, the people and the vibrancy of the people was really enticing.
After a few years, they started a market cycle in the district. Nambak has 60,000 people in 102 villages, so setting up a big clinic is not viable, as most of the people are in the countryside and not able to afford travel to Nambak or Luang Prabang. The villages are small, about 600 people. Movement between the villages needs to be undertaken, so the people can come to the clinics. We now work in 12 different clinics. Three are up the river, where we stay overnight; three are remote, where we can only go in December (as this is the dry season); and the remainder are in the market cycle.
How often do you visit Laos … and describe a typical day when you’re there?
I go three times a year. The times fit between the wet season (the tracks are not able to be walked easily, and this is also the Malaria season) and the crop growing, sowing and reaping time. Food and animals are vital to the people, so they take precedence … a person turned up 2 days late for his dentures; he said that his buffalo was sick and he had to tend to it.
The day starts walking through the day market. The locals buy their fruit, meat and veg for the day. This goes from 6 to 7 each morning. I then have a wonderful coffee for breakfast, go to the hospital to get the material for the day, and then a tuktuk comes to take us to the village. When we get there, we unpack and set up the mobile clinic. I have told the people on the previous trip which days I will be returning to the clinic; they come early and are usually waiting for us to arrive. We then start and go until about 1pm, when we have lunch. After lunch, we continue until all the people have been seen, then we pack up and return to Nambak, where we clean and sterilise the equipment and go to the guest house. I now get included in the community (having been there about 30 times), so we go to weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies.
Who funds your mission?
All volunteers, including me, pay their own way over, food and accommodation for each visit. I did set up an NGO Tooth Aid Incorporated. Funds from membership pay for translators for the visits and also for transport through the Nambak district. Dental supply companies, especially Henry Schein Halas, give me all the materials we need for the trips. I try to get donations from other people and organisations for other things we need. The Academy of Dentistry International donated US$6,000 to build a dental clinic in Nambak.
What do you gain personally from helping less fortunate people?
Personal satisfaction. Also, I am helping people who need it, as well as training people to keep the work going on.
How can people contribute to your cause?
They can join Tooth Aid, donate and come along if they wish.