Dentist's dream is fulfilled in new clinic

The adage that one picture is worth a thousand words is proven with a photo Salt Lake dentist Ralph Montgomery has in his collection. The photo shows him at work on a Philippine island in the shade of a tree. He sits on a wooden chair by a table. His young patient, seated on a stool, leans his head against Dr. Montgomery's shoulder for physical support, and, perhaps, emotional comfort as a tooth is about to be pulled.

That picture, taken in 1988, graphically portrays dentistry in a most primitive form. It also is a visual record of a moment when Dr. Montgomery began dreaming of a better way to serve the poor, not only in far-away places like the Philippines but also in his own community. His dream eventually led to the creation of the Salt Lake Donated Dental Services Clinic, housed in the same facility as the Wasatch Homeless Health Clinic that opened Aug. 4. (See related article on this page.)Dr. Montgomery, a member of the Valley 9th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake, has been for many years a volunteer with Rotary International's Health. Hunger and Humanity Program. His volunteer work with Rotary and other organizations has taken him to Bolivia, India, Russia, Israel, Mexico and China, as well as the Philippines.

"Rotary had a dental clinic set up in a refugee camp in the Philippines to treat the Vietnamese boat people," Dr. Montgomery said in a Church News interview. "I went for about a month at a time for three years. I found out that the boat people were not as bad off as some fo the Filipinos. After hours at the clinic, I treated Filipinos who worked in the hotel where I stayed. Soon, I was working from about 6 in the morning until 10 at night, Mondays through Saturdays. Before I left, I was working on Sundays as well.

"Dr. John Mendoza, a Filipino physician, said one day: `I go into the mountain villages and treat people who have tuberculosis. Everyone of them has toothaches. Why don't you come with me and bring your pliers?'

"It took four hours to get to the village. I set my dental implements on a table under a tree. A crowd of people showed up, all in pain. I took out about 280 teeth. All the time I was working on those people, I kept saying to myself, `There has got to be better way. I'm trained to save teeth, not extract them."

When he returned to Salt Lake City, he applied to Rotary International for a grant and received $312,000. He built a dental clinic in a large motor home, and arranged to have it flown by the U.S. Air Force to the Philippines.

"I decided I should have a trial run with the mobile unit before leaving Salt Lake City," he said. "I went to the homeless shelter and asked the medical director, Allan Ainsworth, if I could bring the mobile clinic to the parking lot and treat the homeless for a week. I got a few dentists to join me. I was amazed. We had a line of up to 100 every morning. At night when we closed, we had 100 still waiting. They kept coming all day. They would beg, `Don't go home; stay another hour.'

"I took the mobile clinic to the Philippines, but I couldn't forget we had same kind of problems in my own community as we had half way around the world. I vowed that when I finished the project in the Philippines I would do something about the problems at home."

By 1990 he had turned the clinic over to local dentists in the Philippines. He went to Dr. Ainsworth and asked if he could find a place to set up a dental clinic to treat the homeless. Dr. Ainsworth arranged for the use of two rooms in the Catholic Church's St. Vincent De Paul Center. Dr. Montgomery recruited 56 local dentists to contribute one day or half a day a month.

"They told their friends who are dentists about how rewarding they found that experience," he said. "Their friends called, and asked, `Do you have room for me to work?' We now have 158 volunteers. In addition to dentists, we have hygienists, dental assistants, lab technicians and others associated with the dental profession.

"As of Aug. 20, we will have been in operation three years. We've treated more than 7,000 patients and have given about $1 million worth of dental services. We treat not only the homeless, but also people who make less than 75 percent of the poverty level. "

The Salt Lake Donated Dental Services Clinic moved to its new facility at 404 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City in early August. "The clinic is a now community effort," Dr. Montgomery said. "It has grown to involve many organizations and groups in our community."

Dr. Montgomery's volunteer work as a dentist began in 1963 when he did dental work for children with mental retardation. Asked to explain what led him to volunteer, Dr. Montgomery quoted Luke 10:27, in which the Savior said: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself."

"That," said Dr. Montgomery, "seems to me to be somewhat a pretty concise and accurate description of what life is all about. When you read further, you see that someone asked Jesus, `And who is my neighbor?' The Savior then told the story of the good Samaritan who helped a man who had been beaten and left by the road.

"In the story, the good Samaritan did not ask the man a lot of questions. He didn't ask: `Are you eligible? Are you worthy? Do you belong to this group or to the other? Are you a Jew or a Philistine?' He just bound up his wounds and helped him. That set the pattern of what we ought to be doing.

"A scriptural reference I've used in my life is Matt. 25:35-40. It is about the hungry and the thirsty who are given food and drink, the stranger who is taken in, the naked who is clothed, the sick and the imprisoned who are visited. The Savior said, `Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' "

Dr. Montgomery paused a moment, then added, "If I had to summarize why I do what I do, that is the answer. That's part of what I believe religion is."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed