For Michael Pointer, car bombs and dysentery are just part of his normal workday. Pointer is currently in Kabul, Afghanistan working as a technician and trainer with the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project (ADRP).
A 1977 technician graduate of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) who has owned and managed laboratories, Pointer had recently gotten out of the field to focus on his passion: painting. However, when the economy slowed and his art sales took a hit, he began looking for a new challenge.
He posted his resume on --a website dedicated to job seekers in the dental field--and was contacted by the ADRP. He learned that, in Afghanistan, there are about 200 dentists to treat 30 million people and oral septicemia is one of the leading causes of death. "Patients routinely present with multiple abscesses, many never having seen a dentist or owned a toothbrush," says Pointer. "The average lifespan here is 42--just a toothbrush can raise that by several years."
After learning about the project--to help set up a full service laboratory and school that offers classes in dental technology, dental assisting and dental hygiene--he knew he wanted to get involved. "This was a chance to make a tangible, positive change in the war-damaged lives of literally thousands of people," he says. "That was something I very much wanted to do. And, since I had been stationed in some not-so-ideal locations while in the USAF, going to Afghanistan was not intimidating to me."
So, in August, Pointer packed his bags and made the 36-hour trip to the Middle East. "When I first arrived here I was inundated with the unusual and the confusing but it's better now," he says. "I've learned a little of the Dari language and I set up the lab. It still leaves a lot to be desired but it works." Both the lab and a dental clinic were constructed inside a 40-ft. shipping container by the ADRP and shipped to Afghanistan with 120,000 pounds of equipment and supplies.
A Country In Need
The dental clinic provides free treatment to widows, orphans and other indigent people in need of care. Currently, Pointer is the only laboratory staff member and the bulk of his work is fabricating single-tooth flippers and dentures, although fixed work is beginning to trickle in. He also helps out in the clinic and is learning Atraumatic Restorative Treatment (ART), a minimally invasive treatment based on excavating and removing caries using hand instruments only and then restoring the tooth with a self-curing glass-ionomer material. ART is used for the prevention and treatment of caries primarily in children and can be taught to people living in remote areas.
The ADRP has also set up a temporary dental clinic in Kabul's women's prison. "When mothers are incarcerated, the children stay with them until they are about 12," says Pointer. "Access to any kind of medical/dental care is nonexistent so we go in and try to alleviate some of their suffering." Pointer also hopes to establish a mobile clinic so he can provide care to remote areas of the country.
The school--also located in the clinic--is also up and running. A class of dental assistants graduated in September and five of the students have decided to continue their education in dental technology. "The language barrier is a problem and due to the short amount of time we have, I just hope to get them proficient in making flippers and gold crowns," says Pointer.
Pointer hopes the first few students will work in the lab, deliver care to remote areas and eventually take on some teaching responsibilities. "While there were many labs here before the 1979 Soviet invasion, there are now just a couple of one-person denture labs and the rest are in Pakistan," he says. "Our graduates will be among the first to re-establish commercial dental labs in Afghanistan."
Despite the benefits of the humanitarian work he's doing, danger is never far away in the war-torn country. "We've had a couple of car bombs and I've been in a couple of sticky situations but nothing too bad," says Pointer. "My experiences in the USAF uniquely prepared me to be able to function in this war zone and, after 30 years of making teeth, I finally feel like I'm able to make a significant difference in a difficult place. I may very well have found my life's work here."
Editor's Note: Pointer will be in Afghanistan until December 21, when he returns home to raise money for the project. After that, he plans to return to Kabul for three months at a time, each trip followed by a month at home for fundraising. Additional Photos From Afghanistan