Over a two week period, 350 teeth had been extracted from mouths never before checked by a qualified dentist.
Nursing a sore wrist by the end of his mission, experienced Harleston dentist Nick Stolls says his time volunteering for medical charity Mercy Ships has helped give him a new outlook on life.
The charity moors a boat full of volunteer medical professionals off the coast of one of the world’s poorest countries and gives people access to free, vital, healthcare.
Mr Stolls, 56, was most recently in the Republic of Congo in October, on the 16,572 tonne ship called Africa Mercy and is planning to go out again this October, with the country to benefit still to be decided. The ship remains in the Republic of Congo, with other volunteers on board, until June.
Working from a purpose converted clinic in the large city of Pointe Noir in the Republic of Congo, Mr Stolls worked in a team, taking one of eight dental chairs.
He said: “It is an extremely poor country. The need for every type of healthcare is enormous.”
He said his work involved mostly extracting teeth, with some fillings. Some, he said, had never seen a dentist.
In 2012, he visited Guinea, doing similar work.
“In Sierra Leone, for example, there are three dentists for a population of ten million,” said Mr Stolls.
The few hundred people treated by Mr Stolls’ team of course represents a drop in the ocean of healthcare need in the country. Does he not find the situation and need overwhelming? Mr Stolls said: “A guy once told me a story about a young lad who was walking alone on a beach and there had been a huge storm.
“The storm threw hundreds of thousands of starfish up on the beach. He couldn’t possibly save them all, but he put a few back in the sea.
“You won’t make a huge difference to the national health of Congo and Guinea but you can make a difference to some.”
He is lead dentist at the Harleston Dental Practice, in Redenhall Road, and has been practicing there, and in Fressingfield before that, for more than 30 years.
There is no special reason why the father of two grown up children chose to suddenly take up a role with Mercy Ships.
He explained: “I was talking to a guy who was a plastic surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. I had seen it advertised and you can’t help but think that you have a skill that can be of use.
“I thought: ‘this is something I could try.’
“It is an extremely rewarding experience, but one which you have to prepare yourself for.”
The impact on Mr Stolls has been to make him appreciate what we have and what we take for granted in the economically developed world.
He has seen something as simple as the removal of a cataract giving gift of sight to a child or seeing a toddler have surgery on a cleft lip and palate which would otherwise spell a life of social exclusion that the condition often brings.
He said: “I think it has opened my eyes to the fact that there are people in this world who desperately need support from countries that are more affluent.
“It makes us realise we are lucky to have the health service we have when you do have a problem.
“If you have a health problem and were transported to one of these countries, you would be in a very difficult situation.
“It probably means that I don’t moan as much about the NHS as some other people do.”
To find out more about Mercy Ships UK, and how to help, visit http://www.mercyships.org.uk/.