Dental News

Dentist's dedication takes bite out of poverty

Kate Benson Medical Reporter
November 12, 2007

Tooth Aid … Paul Kotala, who has won a humanitarian of the year award, works on a patient in Laos. Photo: Ruth Hartmann

LOOKING for the dentist? He’s just down past the fried cockroaches and before the pickled fish roe and papaya.

It is market day in a small village in Laos. In the stifling humidity, villagers are searching for Paul Kotala’s old kitchen chair, nestled between the fruits and vegetables laid out on tarpaulins.

Some have travelled for up to five hours by tuk-tuk, boat or on foot, and many are in intense pain from impacted teeth and abscesses. One patient is running late for his appointment. Days late. When questioned, he explains his buffalo was sick.

It is a long way from Mosman, where Dr Kotala ran a private practice for 13 years, but this is where his heart, and conscience, found a home.

Four years ago, Dr Kotala sold his surgery, then “begged and borrowed” to set up Tooth Aid, a voluntary organisation providing free dental care to Laotians, and training for Laotian dentists and nurses to Australian standards. Now the Academy of Dentistry International has awarded him a humanitarian award, the first given to an Australian dentist, in recognition of his work. “I’m really humbled to have received this award,” he said yesterday. “I get enormous satisfaction from knowing I have helped people from needless suffering. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world by World Health Organisation standards.

“Most of the villages in Nambak district, where Tooth Aid is based, don’t have running water or electricity and the only dental equipment they had was a mirror.”

On his first trip, Dr Kotala took more than 65 kilograms of equipment, including forceps, drills, anaesthetics and a generator, all donated by dentists and businesses. He extracted more than 600 teeth in a week.

“Some of them couldn’t eat because of the pain they had been in, and just like us, having decent teeth improves your self-esteem.”

Dr Kotala took on two Laotian nurses, put them through a crash course in dental anatomy, injection technique and extractions, then left them to run the program.

“It is terrifying to think you are leaving people alone to extract teeth after a fortnight’s training, but as they were nurses, they already knew about medical procedures, infection prevention and sterilisation techniques,” he said. “And they did a fantastic job.”

He returns four times a year, working in markets, and travelling hours to reach remote villages with his mobile surgery.

Last year, Tooth Aid built a clinic in the hospital grounds at Nambak and is expecting its first dentist chair in the next few months. A school preventive program has also been set up, teaching children how to use toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“They are extremely poor but I always come back feeling poorer because in a social and community-minded sense, they are far in advance of us.”