For Dr. Nekky Jamal (DMD’09), the biggest mistake he’s made as a dentist also showed him the power of his profession to change lives.
It was on his first trip to Nicaragua as a member of a dental brigade, teams of up to 20 people that run week-long dental clinics in some of the most remote corners of Central and South America. Jamal -- who now practises in Lloydminster, Alta. -- can still see his patient, a 13-year-old girl named Maria smiling up at him, with a gaping hole in one of her front teeth.
As a junior member of the team in 2010, he was just following the direction of the head dentist when he applied freezing, then pulled the diseased tooth.
Through a translator, the teen thanked him, then asked when her new tooth would grow in. Jamal explained that it was one of her adult teeth, that it was very sick, and it needed to be removed.
“She looked up at me and said (in Spanish) ‘How am I going to get married now? How am I going to find a husband? I can’t even smile.’
“It’s stories like that that remind you how powerful our profession is.”
Since then, Jamal has made 19 more trips to Central and South America. He was instrumental in helping Change for Children, an Edmonton-based international development agency, establish its own in-house, dental brigade program to send the teams Jamal recruits to work abroad.
Those teams have provided dental care to close to 10,000 children and adults who would not otherwise have access to this critical service. And through a campaign he founded called Quench, Jamal has raised more than $175,000 in the past five years, to drill 12 water wells in the parched Chinandega region of Nicaragua.
In many of the areas Change for Children works, soda pop -- a dentist’s arch enemy -- is often cheaper and more accessible than clean drinking water.
Lorraine Swift, executive director with Change for Children, says Jamal has had a major influence on her organization -- whether he’s rolling up his sleeves to pack dental supplies for brigade trips or raising the profile of the organization through the local news media.
“He’s become a very important pillar of our organization. Nekky has a massive amount of energy and he dedicates so much of it to helping others.”
Swift says Jamal’s passion for international development work rubs off on the staff in his dental practice, on patients, and on business people in the Lloydminster area.
“We’re constantly fundraising and looking for people to support our work, and so many people say to us ‘If Nekky’s into it, then I’m into it too.’ His energy is infectious.”
That first dental brigade
The idea to apply his dental skills abroad was planted early on in dental school. Nekky recalls a couple of his professors, Drs. Francisco Otero and Gerry Uzwak, talking in their classes about helping people in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. The stories they told sounded like great adventures.
When he and classmate Karl Martin (DMD’09) graduated from dental school in 2009, they travelled to Jalapa, Guatemala.
Nekky still vividly recalls that first trip: Remote mountaintops; parents explaining through translators that their children hadn’t slept in days -- and in some cases, weeks -- because of painful abscesses; having to pull five, six, seven badly infected teeth out of a child’s mouth.
“You don’t see anything like that here. It totally changed my life.” Nekky returned home, thinking ‘Where should I be? Who needs my help the most?’ One trip led to another.
“It just kinda snowballed.”
Jamal almost chose medicine over dentistry
Nekky almost didn’t apply to dental school. At 6-foot-5, he figured his XL-sized paws meant he wouldn’t be able to work in people’s mouths. In fact, he’d already applied and been accepted into medical school. At an appointment with his own dentist, Nekky was bemoaning the fact that while he really wanted to become a dentist, his hands were too big for the job. His dentist spread out his fingers and told Nekky to put his hand up to his.
“No joke, his hands were way bigger than mine. And I was like, ‘What! I can still be a dentist?’ ”
He applied and was accepted at the U of S College of Dentistry.
What makes Nekky tick
So what makes Jamal so passionate about helping the less fortunate? An early exposure to extreme poverty likely played a big part.
His family -- originally from East Africa -- lived in Nairobi, Kenya for a year, when he was in Grade 4.
“I just feel like I hit the geographical jackpot by being born in Canada and being born in a situation where I’m able to go to school.”
Money was tight when Jamal was growing up. He worked at Pizza Hut through high school, with all the money he earned going straight into an RESP that funded his undergraduate degree in biological sciences and economics at the University of Calgary.
“I truly believe I was given this gift of education. And it is my job to share this gift with the world. It is my responsibility as a human to help people where I can.”
Jamal says he’s most proud of the team of dental brigaders he’s helped build, working with Change for Children. Each year Jamal and his business partner, Raegan Eliasson (DMD’09), pay for two USask dental students to accompany them to Central America as part of a dental brigade. Many of those same students keep coming back year after year, once they finish their schooling.
“That’s what makes me feel like it’s working, that I’m helping instill this feeling of responsibility among people who didn’t even know this was an issue before.”
Jamal says he doesn’t stay in touch with his fellow brigaders during the year, but when he makes his calls every October, the response is always: “OK, great. Just tell me when I need to book my flights.”
Shane Van Biezen (DMD’16) was in his fourth year of dental school in 2016, when he was awarded one of the Dental Volunteers scholarship.
Since then Van Biezen, who now practises in Golden, B.C., has made six more trips at his own expense. He appreciates the experience Nekky exposed him to, serving children and adults who would not otherwise have access to dental care.
“He’s had an immense influence and impact on my career. He got me started with the dental brigades and Change for Children, which has provided me with this whole other path for providing care to people. You’re doing the best you can for these people under less than ideal circumstances, but they are just so appreciative. Each time you return home, you have this newfound joy in the profession. That’s what keeps bringing me back.”
Jamal is now the lead dentist on Change for Children trips. He says teams no longer pull front teeth unless a patient demands it, and instead do everything they can to save teeth and get rid of infection.
Jamal knows he can’t undo the mistake he made treating Maria. But her memory is his motivation.
“I still think about it. I just want to do right by this poor girl. I know I’m never going to see her again. That’s what drives me to keep going back to these communities, to do what I can to help.”