Queen Anne dentist: doing good because he's done well

Dr. Thomas Roberts makes a decent living at his dental practice in Lower Queen Anne, but the Phinney Ridge resident's urge to give something back has led him on an exotic odyssey to a country thousands of miles away in space and generations away in time.

Roberts spends two weeks each spring in Nepal, where he and another volunteer dentist treat hundreds of patients, the vast majority of them children, he said. "We try to see kids, but we will see anybody who comes in."

It's a challenge. "Sugar is everywhere, and they don't own toothbrushes," Roberts explained. "We work nonstop filling big holes and pulling broken teeth."

Roberts said he got the idea of taking his talents to the Himalayan country quite by chance six years ago, when he met a Tibetan Buddhist monk at a New York City dinner party. The monk was trying to dig up people who would sponsor children through the Vikramasila Foundation, a New Jersey-based organization that educates Tibetan children at two monasteries: one in India, one in Nepal.

Roberts said he ended up sponsoring one of the children, but he also heard about a Western, low-income dental clinic in Katmandu, Nepal, a clinic associated with the Vikramasila Foundation monastery. And that news moved him to offer not just his money but also his services for the past five years.

The monastery itself is located northwest of Katmandu in the town of Pokhara, where Roberts also treats patients. "It's just a temporary clinic," he added.

The need for a helping hand is clear, according to Roberts. "They have dentists - technically - but they are pretty poorly trained," he said. Roberts is also bucking a culture where health and dental care are considered to be luxuries. "These people make $200 a year," he noted.

The poverty level in the developing country is not the only factor for dentistry. While cavity-preventing fluoridated water is an accepted standard in this country, it is not in Nepal. "You don't even want to look at the tap water, let alone drink it," Roberts said.

Lack of dental care has led to a lack of education as well. "They just assumed it was natural for baby teeth to rot out of their heads," Roberts shuddered. "The idea of someone giving them instructions about brushing teeth is a big thing."

That attitude is starting to change, in part because of Roberts and his fellow dentist, but also because of the efforts of Kunga Dhondup, the Tibetan lama who heads up the monastery. "He makes the students brush their teeth every day," Roberts grinned.

The Pokhara monastery is only partially complete. Dhondup had been getting dot-com money to help build the complex, but that source of funding dried up when the tech market crashed a few years ago, Roberts said.

So Roberts started donating money for that project as well, he said. "Each year we do another wing. There's still a ways to go." Indeed, finishing the monastery will cost at least a couple hundred thousand dollars, Roberts added.

Roberts concedes that the political situation is a bit dicey in Nepal, where Maoist guerrillas have been waging war against the government for several years. But it's not a problem for him, he said. "They just haven't been hurting Westerners."

Roberts, who grew up as a Methodist, has become a Buddhist since he started making the trips to Nepal. "The more I studied, the more it made sense," he explained. Roberts added that he sometimes attends services at the Greenwood Tibetan temple and hopes the organization will lend a helping hand with the Nepalese monastery project.

Roberts looks forward to his trip to Nepal every year. "I mean, it's hard, it's a long way to go, and we work really hard," he said. But the monastery has become part of his life now, Roberts added. "It's like a family reunion."

The Seattle dentist also can't picture an end to his trips to the country, and he isn't the only one. "The lama," Roberts smiled, "has already picked a spot for me to retire in the monastery."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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