Dentists ease the pain for Ugandans

MILL CREEK — In Uganda, going to see the dentist is tough when you make less than a dollar a day.

Dental health is a luxury to most Ugandans. Paying 3,000 Ugandan shillings to have a painful tooth removed could mean going hungry for several days.

It is a bitter choice that many Ugandans have to make, but one that dentist Linda Cirtaut and assistant Paula Kooistra hope to make easier.

In January, the two plan on making visiting a dentist as painless as possible.

“Many Ugandans go their whole lives without seeing a dentist, and when they need one, they can’t afford it,” Kooistra said. “We try to help those who need it most and give them their smile back.”

Cirtaut, 55, of Mill Creek and Kooistra, 44, of Stanwood have been to Uganda twice in the last two years, touring the country from top to bottom helping those in need.

The two begin their dental road show in the northern refugee camp of Koch Goma, which is home to more than 80,000 people.

During their first visit to the camp, they couldn’t believe what they saw.

“As we pulled in, there were so many huts and shelters, and so, so many people,” Kooistra said. “Then we noticed the line waiting outside our temporary clinic.”

The line consisted of more than 80 men, women and children. Some had been waiting in line for more than three days with abscesses that would require immediate tooth removal. An abscess occurs when there is severe decay of the tooth creating an infection that spreads to the gum and bone.

In the end, it was nearly all that they could recall doing.

“We did a few fillings, but with so many people in need of treatment we had to focus on getting them out of pain,” Cirtaut said. “We had a hygienist with us — who came along to clean some teeth — but with so many abscesses, all they could do was give shots to the patients to ease their pain while we worked.”

After Koch Goma, the team drove west to Lake Katwe to help salt miners, and then south to Burundi and a nearby pygmy village.

First, a little excitement. In this case, it came with a couple AK-47’s and the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force.

“We were trying to cross a bridge over the Nile river when these two guys stopped us and pointed their machine guns at us,” Kooistra said. “They were yelling at us, accusing us of taking pictures of their bridge. They were making a big show of being angry, telling us to turn around. It was very good cop, bad cop.”

That was until they pulled out a few Ugandan shillings.

“Oh then it was all smiles,” Kooistra said. “They let us cross the bridge like nothing ever happened.”

Kooistra dismisses the event as “business as usual” while in Uganda, stressing that there was no part in their trip that they felt as if they were in any danger.

This January, the two plan on returning to the Koch Goma refugee camp and the miners of the Lake Katwe salt mines.

“I just hope we get the opportunity to see some of the people we saw last year,” Kooistra said. “We want to help just as many people, if not more, than last year.”

Cirtaut and Kooistra are finalizing paperwork to start their own nonprofit called “Smiles of Uganda.” “We decided to focus on Uganda because of the people and their need,” Kooistra said. “We are very well received, and the people are very respectful. It’s heartwarming.”

Reporter Justin Arnold: 425-339-3432 or

Smiles of Uganda

For more information on Smiles of Uganda or to find out how you can help, call 425-745-2703.

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