Bringing smiles
to the jungle

From a single reconnaissance trip to Dili in 2013, a Brisbane dentist has become an accidental hero to hundreds of children in Timor-Leste. Once a year, he loads up a Landcruiser and heads into the jungle to rebuild smiles and take away pain.

Malcolm Campbell opens a folder on his laptop, scrolling through photographs as he talks. His train of thought is often interrupted by the passing images.

“Little babies with decayed teeth,” he says as he pauses on one of the photos.

“It’s just heartbreaking." 

Another photograph shows the back of a Toyota Landcruiser loaded with all the equipment that three dentists need to extract 230 teeth and give check-ups to 600 children in Timor-Leste over the course of a week.

For the past five years, Campbell (Bachelor of Dental Science ’84) has been travelling to Timor-Leste annually, implementing a slowly evolving program of dental aid for the Timor Children’s Foundation Dental Project. The project isn’t a slick charity – it is something that happened accidentally and is expanding organically and out of sheer need.

Each year, Campbell and a small team of volunteers have expanded the number of sites they visit and the number of patients they treat.

“You don’t have to start big to get involved in aid work. With $15,000–20,000 you can get a mobile unit with enough equipment that you can take anywhere."

“That’s the point of difference with what we do – it’s mobile. There are other dental charities in Timor-Leste. But, with the exception of some work by Rotary, they are at fixed clinics.”

Access to health services such as fixed dental clinics is a major issue in Timor-Leste because about 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas in small, dispersed villages isolated by mountainous terrain and poor roads.

“Our equipment is lightweight, so we can pack it up and drop in anywhere.”

Campbell started his career in mobile school dentistry, but it was his later roles working out of The Townsville Hospital and serving in the Army Reserve that opened his eyes to the potential of mobile dentistry.

As well as running a general dental practice in Brisbane’s CBD, Campbell has a mobile dentistry business that visits nursing homes and aged-care facilities. He is also a guest lecturer at UQ on mobile dentistry.

“There are so many advantages of using mobile dentistry equipment in nursing homes,” he said.

“I have a patient with Chorea and Huntington’s disease. He likes lying out on the grass in the sun, so that’s where I treat him. If I tried to bring him in to the surgery he would be unhappy and anxious. So that’s where the mobile equipment works in my favour.”

Campbell’s reputation in mobile dentistry caught the attention of Timor Children’s Foundation director Reverend John Ruhle in 2013. The foundation runs the Samaria Children’s Home in Dili and also provides scholarships for students to attend school, university and technical colleges.

“John believed the mobile dentistry approach could work in Timor-Leste and encouraged me to come and have a look,” Campbell said.

“I didn’t want to go in on my big white charger and pretend that I was going to do everything. But my heart was ripped open and I thought, ‘We can do this’.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the young nation of Timor-Leste has made steady progress in the health sector in the last decade by constructing health facilities and expanding community-based services.

However, the country only has 10 dentists for a population of 1.25 million people. That’s a ratio of 1:125,000. In Australia, the ratio of dentists to population is 1:1000.

Another challenge is that Timor-Leste has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, and poor nutrition is a leading risk factor for poor oral health.

WHO uses the decay-missing-filled (DMF) index for assessing the prevalence of tooth decay, as well as dental treatment needs among populations, and has set a target for children under 12 years of age to have a DMF score of under three.

“In the 600 kids that we saw in Timor-Leste last year, their average DMF was 5.2. Some children had a score of 20. That’s absolutely shocking,” Campbell said.

(Images supplied by Malcolm Campbell)

Despite having travelled to Timor-Leste for many years, Campbell is still finding fresh inspiration to help communities in need.

Last year, he and his team travelled for the first time to the remote village of Lospalos. A seven-hour drive from Dili and almost impossible to access during the wet season, the village is home to 17,000 people and one dental health nurse.

The nurse is able to undertake extractions if necessary, but these are performed without anaesthetic – there simply isn’t any.

“Lospalos would benefit greatly from a fixed dental clinic, but building one is years away,” Campbell said.

“Try telling someone in pain that a dental clinic will be built in a few years.”

The trek between Dili and Lospalos.

The trek between Dili and Lospalos.

Campbell is now a co-director of the Timor Children’s Foundation and a primary source of fundraising for the dental project.

He said that for every $1 donated, the project provides $10 of dental services.

“Companies such as Colgate, Southern Dental Industries and Henry Schein Halas have provided in-kind support, while a number of dental practices around Brisbane have donated supplies and money. 

“Our hope is that the project can become self-sustaining with small teams of volunteers being able to use the mobile equipment that is now stored in Dili.”

So what keeps Campbell coming back to Timor-Leste? 

“It ticks a lot of boxes for me: a bit of adventure, giving back and bringing out the good in people. I have a very fortunate life.”

Still flicking through the images on his laptop, Campbell stops at one showing his interpreter holding the hand of a small boy in a dental chair who is seeing a dentist for the first time.

“We have lots of special moments like this."

You can contribute to Dr Campbell's work by visiting the Timor Children’s Foundation Dental Project.

PUPPY POWER

Puppies are putting smiles on faces in more ways than one, with a dog breeding program helping Timor-Leste children receive the dental care they so desperately need.

Brisbane veterinarian and UQ alumnus Dr Jeannet Kessels started Groodles Australia 11 years ago as a “crazy idea” to raise money for the Timor Children’s Foundation.

Groodles Australia breeds healthy groodle puppies under the supervision of qualified veterinarians and nurses and has morphed into a generous community project. From the sale of puppies, Groodles Australia has donated more than $360,000 to the Timor Children’s Foundation, Beyond Blue, and The Bob Brown Foundation’s Tarkine Project.

Kessels (Bachelor of Veterinary Science (Honours) ’86) oversees every aspect of the groodle program, ensuring ethical breeding standards are met and all money raised is directed to the charities.

Dentist and co-director of the Timor Children’s Foundation Malcolm Campbell’s own golden retriever, Winnie, recently gave birth to 10 puppies, all of which were sold through Groodles Australia.

The puppies raised a combined total of $15,500 for the Timor Children’s Foundation Dental Project, with one puppy sold to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Kessels has a personal connection to the Timor Children’s Foundation. Her father, Arie van Klinken, spent time in Timor-Leste during and after the Indonesian occupation and established a fund to provide scholarships for students to attend school, university and technical colleges. He believed education was the best option for rebuilding a traumatised nation. The scholarship fund merged with the Timor Children’s Foundation in 2007.

Learn more about Groodles Australia.

(Image supplied by Malcolm Campbell)