SOLANA BEACH — Vacations are great for discovering new places and meeting new people while leaving behind, at least for a while, the stress of everyday life, especially work.
That was easier said than done for Solana Beach resident and pediatric dentist William Rawlings during a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last April.
“I knew I had to turn my dentist eye off but I can’t,” he said.
While in Cambodia, Rawlings said he couldn’t help but notice the many children with poor or no teeth and facial abscesses.
“They weren’t crying,” he said. “They were just living with infections. I thought I might like to do a dental mission there.”
When he returned home he serendipitously discovered Project Angkor through the California Society of Pediatric Dentists.
“The opportunity just fell in our laps,” Rawlings said of the nonprofit that serves the people of the Kingdom of Cambodia by providing free health care to the underserved.
About eight months later he and his wife, Mary, were on a plane heading to Battambang in northwest Cambodia, where they would meet up with 70 other doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, assistants and lay people.
Upon their arrival they were joined by 30 Cambodian medical students who acted as assistants and translators.
An opening ceremony was followed by five full days of providing care to about 4,000 patients of all ages.
Rawlings said the mission was very well-organized, with patients triaged daily to serve their needs. However, some people waited overnight.
Rawlings saw between 16 and 20 children a day and mostly extracted “the remnants of teeth.”
“Most of them were so far gone they weren’t worth saving,” he said, attributing the problems to a poor diet and lack of dental hygiene and education.
“Many of the people, we gave them their first toothbrush,” he said.
He said few were scared and all were cooperative and appreciative. His most memorable patient was a 10-year-old monk.
“I haven’t had too many Buddhist monks come into my practice in the past 32 years,” he said. “His teeth were in the best shape of anyone I examined.
“In Cambodia, the poorest send their sons to the monastery because it’s the only way they get an education,” he added. “This child’s teeth were so good because his family is so poor.”
Rawlings said many of the people wore good-luck charms and arrived in their best clothing for the appointments.
He said the greatest challenge was working in “primitive conditions.”
“It was laborious, physical and pretty challenging,” he said. “But I’m really sold on this nonprofit and the enthusiasm of the volunteers. They were amazing having to work under somewhat trying conditions to deliver health care.”
Rawlings was part of Project Angkor’s fourth humanitarian mission to Cambodia. Volunteers must pay for their own expenses.
All money raised through donations and corporate sponsors is used to buy medicine and supplies and provide education and training to local health care professionals and students.
“I truly believe that this is the best experience yet,” Norannsy Chieuchin, board president, wrote in an email to the volunteers when they returned home.
“You alleviated some discomfort or pain for a lot of people, perhaps made some life-changing affect in others but, mainly, you showed the Cambodian people that they do not suffer in silence or alone,” he wrote. “You showed them that there is compassion and humanity in the world.”
Rawlings is no stranger to charity work. He has volunteered at the St. James Dental Clinic in Solana Beach.
Donning an elf cap, he was also part of a team that provided $1.62 million in care to 2,203 patients during a two-day event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds this past holiday season.
Rawlings spent the weekend providing free dental care — from cleanings and fillings to extractions and dentures — mostly to pediatric patients.
He said he would like to return to Cambodia but is not sure time will allow it in 2015 as he is slated to be installed in July as the next Del Mar Rotary Club president.
“I would like to thank Bahr Investment Group, the Rotary Club of Del Mar and Practice Enhancement Group for their generous donations,” Rawlings said. He said he also appreciates his wife accompanying him to help in the clinic.
“I think she enjoyed it more than I did,” he said.
For more information or to donate or volunteer, visit projectangkor.org.