On a short-term medical mission to Rwanda 10 years ago with a team from his church in California, Dr Thomas Lee never expected to return and use his expertise to transform lives. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Korean-American dental surgeon with 33 years of experience, accompanied by his wife, Lita Lee, moved to Rwanda to give assistance to people in need, as soon as international travel was allowed. They weighed the pros and cons before ultimately deciding to take a chance despite the possible risks. The couple, who have three children, said their goodbyes and sold their home in Simi Valley and their dental practice in Granada Hills before packing their bags and coming to Rwanda. “Our ultimate goal is to serve people that don’t have access to proper dental care and hygiene, especially in rural areas,” Dr Lee said. Farewell California From a young age, Dr Lee harboured aspirations of becoming a dentist, which was further encouraged by his mother’s consistent prayers for him to become a doctor and utilise his skills to help those less fortunate. He couldn’t fathom what it meant at the time, yearning to be successful as he grew older. Now, 40 years later, he is fulfilling his mother’s prayers. In 2013, while attending to a young mother at a remote health centre in Ruvabu District who had a severe dental infection, Lee said he “heard a voice from God speaking to me to come back to Rwanda and help people like her. I immediately affirmed this, though I didn't know the weight of it.” Leaving his life in the US behind and embracing the challenge of moving to Rwanda proved to be a difficult but exciting choice. Heeded by what he said was God’s prompting, he accepted the opportunity without hesitation and devoted time to gaining a better understanding of the culture, community, and people. Subsequently, he took annual trips to Rwanda to build on his familiarity with the country. Recounting his experience of having to sell his dental practice, and home and leave behind his family and friends to start fresh in a new country, he remarked: “It was a difficult decision for me and my wife.” For eight years, he and his team returned to Rwanda, gaining a deeper understanding of the system, and Rwandan culture, and striving to ensure the sustainability of their service to the people. “Leaving the ‘American Dream’ made me realise that there had to be more meaning than success and chasing after financial gains. I gave it all up to gain more significance, to bless people and share my blessings from God with others,” Lee said. On some mornings, he still can scarcely believe that he is in Rwanda, the place of his dreams. Occasionally, a profound inner joy courses through him, unlike anything he has ever experienced before. He is infinitely glad to be here. After residing in the US for 50 years, adjusting to a new environment, with its distinct culture and governing system, can be daunting. He noted that despite making some mistakes, he was surrounded by many supportive friends from whom he could learn. Work in Rwanda Given the low number of local dentists available in the country, it was clear and essential to increase awareness around oral health. And Dr Lee was certain that he could make a difference with his organisation, ‘His Hands on Africa’. The objective was to cultivate healing and deliver hope by equipping Rwandan dental surgeons with the necessary skills to practice their craft compassionately and with perfection. ALSO READ: Maintain oral hygiene to boost overall health Their first project was to upgrade the dental clinic at Nyamata District Hospital. The process of progress since his arrival in Rwanda has been gradual; it has taken time to assimilate to the culture and recognise the needs of the local community. “We were able to complete the upgrading of other dental clinics in Nyamata, and also successfully build a dental clinic near the border of Burundi, where patients can access all dental care services with Mutuelle de Santé,” he said. Dr Lee is currently employed at Nyamata Hospital, where he lovingly cares for the Bugesera community. Utilising portable dental equipment, he also leads the hospital's team on monthly trips to 12 local health centres. They treat 60 to 80 patients per week. His initiative is still in the early stages of creating a training programme to further teach and educate local dental surgeons, increasing their expertise in the field of dentistry, going to rural communities to serve, and teaching at the dental school to raise up the next generation. He intends to acquire a bus to serve as a mobile dental clinic, travelling to areas with limited access to dental care to provide treatment to people who need it. In addition, the construction of Hope Dental Center in Kicukiro, under his initiative, is anticipated to start in the early months of next year, with a projected completion timeline of the end of the year. With his team of doctors, they have already treated over 20,000 people and are eager to make an even greater impact as they expand their numbers. Not an easy experience Dr Lee believes that Rwanda should further develop its training of dental surgeons. He has encountered major obstacles due to the scarcity of necessary dental supplies, causing frequent delays. He also remarked that providing preventive education is difficult when many of his clients do not even possess toothbrushes. Lee is confident that collaboration between local communities and the Ministry of Health will be essential in improving the oral health of Rwandans. He is optimistic about the future of Rwanda’s dental care, as the University of Rwanda is now training over 20 dental surgeons annually through its newly established School of Dentistry. “Our work is a process, it requires training and experience, and we are here to support this process in any way possible to speed things up and provide resources to increase oral health for the whole nation,” Lee said. Oral health care In 2021, the Global Health Action presented the National Oral Health Survey of Rwanda (NOHSR) data where (62.7 per cent) of people did not use a toothbrush or toothpaste (70.0 per cent) cleaned their teeth less than once per day (55.3 per cent), and had a higher prevalence of untreated caries. Approximately one-third of those in rural areas cleaned their teeth once per day or more compared to two-thirds of those in urban areas (35.4 per cent vs. 71.2 per cent). Those cleaning their teeth less than once daily were estimated to have (56.0 per cent) higher odds of caries than those who cleaned their teeth once a day or more. It also stated that those with secondary education or higher, and those with skilled jobs, demonstrated more frequent teeth cleaning and higher toothbrush and toothpaste use. Lee emphasised the importance of oral hygiene, noting that oral infections can have serious repercussions on the heart, liver, immune system, and overall health. He believes that people should focus on preventive care, attend regular dental check-ups, and maintain good health rather than allowing the situation to deteriorate. Dr Lee urges all Rwandans to join forces and bring about positive changes in oral health by contributing in any way possible—through financial resources, volunteer work, knowledge sharing, and offering their support through prayers—knowing that every contribution will amount to something. The greatest joy for him will be when Rwandan dental surgeons are no longer in need of his assistance and are able to utilise the skills and knowledge he has imparted through ‘His Hand on Africa’ to look after Rwandans. At that point, the mission will have been successfully completed.