Dentists on a mission to brighten paradise

BLUE seas and black teeth were among the contrasts facing Coffs Harbour dentist Tony Kershaw and his wife Wendy when the couple recently joined a medical mission visiting a group of tiny and remote Pacific islands in the Solomon Sea.

The couple flew from Cairns to Port Moresby and on to Alotau to join a shipload of other volunteers including four dentists, four doctors and a number of nurses aboard the Townsville-based YWAM (Youth with a Mission) medical ship.

The ship was home as they visited five islands in the Louisiade and Woodlark archipelagos off the southern tip of Papua New Guinea, to provide health screening and services.

Over 17 days Tony and Wendy visited five different islands and 15 different villages, spending long days dispensing dental care, often in the open air under a tree.

Panapompom Island, Woodlark Island, Rossel island, Misima Island and Panaeati Island are hardly household words.

"We didn't really know where they were - we had to look them up on Google," Wendy said.

An ocean cruise, calling at remote and unspoiled islands and meeting friendly locals might seem like an idyllic holiday, but it was much more than that.

Tony and Wendy said the islands were truly beautiful, as their photograph gallery shows, but the visitors well and truly earned their keep.

Dentist and dental assistant Tony Kershaw and his wife Wendy are planning more dental volunteering.
Dentist and dental assistant Tony Kershaw and his wife Wendy are planning more dental volunteering. Belinda Scott

Tony said the four dentists performed 500 odd teeth extractions for the islanders, 160 of which he did, as well as hundreds of fillings and teeth cleaning and the doctors and nurses had done immunisations, including for tetanus.

"There is a lot of gum disease," Tony said.

"They chew coral, crushed with betel nut and it gets up under their gums and causes gum disease."

The betel nut also stains then teeth dark.

"But on the islands where there is no shop, the kids didn't have holes in their teeth."

Tony said he saw children as young as six chewing the betel nut, which takes away appetite.

"The mining companies are starting to go back in, bringing electricity - and chips and soft drinks.

"We were pretty lucky we got to go when we did."

"It was hard work with long days," Wendy said.

She said the islanders ate a diet high in fish and shellfish, paddling dugout canoes, harvesting sea cucumber and fishing with spears using sharpened sticks. They also kept chickens and pigs and grew bananas.

"There is no money, so they have nothing to give you, but they would bring chickens or pigs to the ship and everywhere they give you coconuts," Wendy said.

The couple enjoyed the experience of meeting, travelling and working with people from many different countries, some of whom had their families with them, so the ship had passengers from one-year old to 86.

"The ship was alcohol-free, which was sensible," Tony said.

"It made socialisation quite different."

The couple, who have sold their dental practice at Coffs Harbour, say with their children now finished university, they are looking at more dental volunteering overseas and are already tossing up between East Timor's Balibo dental clinic or work in South India.

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