Knox Dental Clinic, Jamaica
In the hills of rural Jamaica, Vesper Society helped start a dental clinic in the late 1970s on the Knox College campus. This is a story about vision, relationships, and service.
Born in Glasgow, Rev. Lewis Davidson set sail for Jamaica in 1939. In 1941, he petitioned the Synod to start a new Presbyterian congregation and recommended that a new education center be built on Spalding Hill.
In 1945, Rev. Davidson was appointed by the Foreign Mission Committee of the Church of Scotland to be head of this new education center, later named Knox College. His vision to create a cradle-to-grave education for people of all walks of life had begun.
While lecturing at Knox College in 1975, Mark Gibbs, a Vesper Fellow, learned from Rev. Davidson that there was only one part-time dentist serving over 50,000 people in the region. Together with Vesper co-founder Bob Cummings and Vesper President George Spindt, they worked out an agreement in which Knox College would supply the land and building materials and Vesper would provide the design, construction supervision, and equipment for the dental clinic as well as a cottage for visiting dentists.
In 1978, Vesper Society secured the gift of a dental laboratory with the assistance of a New York dentist. San Francisco Bay Area dentists donated an additional dental suite, and a generator was installed that enabled the clinic to remain in operation during the frequent electrical failures.
It was that same year that staffing the Dental Clinic became possible through a cooperative effort of San Leandro dentists, Dental Schools of University of California and University of the Pacific, and the World Brotherhood Exchange of the Lutheran Council USA.
At Rev. Davidson’s memorial in 1981, his Knox College co-founder Mr. David Bent paid tribute to him, stating that “in addition to his involvement in the growth of an independent Jamaica, he introduced many educational innovations in all phases of the developing child from three years to university. He ran summer schools and international work camps, experimented with low-cost housing, methane gas, solar heaters, farming, food-processing, printing, and established a dental clinic at Knox.”
Vesper Society is proud to have been a part of Jamaica’s history and in improving the health and well-being of that community.
Serendipity. Synchronicity. Call it what you like—life is amazing when you make connections in unexpected ways. One day, while talking with one of our Northern California project partners, we learned that her husband was one of those dentists who went to Jamaica with Vesper Society.
We are pleased to introduce Richard Hochwald, D.D.S., who served as a Vesper Society dentist in Jamaica in 1980. Miyoko Oshima met with Dr. Hochwald in 2014 to learn about his experience.
Why was there such a need for dentists in Jamaica?
Jamaica set up a system of socialized medicine under the Democratic Socialist government of Michael Manly. Although many of his social programs benefited the poor, his vision alienated those in the business community. As a result, a large number of business people, including doctors, left the island, along with all of their assets.
Near Spalding, there were no dentists for 50 miles. The local hospital in Spalding was run by a German volunteer. There were several other German doctors on the island at the time due to the fact that Germany forgave student loans if the doctors volunteered to practice in Jamaica.
When we were there, my wife at that time became very ill and spent a few days in the hospital. When she was discharged, we went to pay the bill and were informed that there was no one available to create a bill or take any money – the position didn’t seem to exist!
How did you operate the dental clinic?
We didn’t have an appointment system. Every morning I’d get up and look down onto the dental clinic from our house. I would see 20-25 people lining up from early in the morning waiting for us to open the clinic.
We were a fee-for-service dental clinic. We performed basic dental services that consisted mostly of extractions. Also, some fillings were done and partial and full dentures were made by our Jamaican lab technician. We rarely took x-rays due to the expense and the short shelf life due to the heat. We charged $2 for an extraction, which seemed to be an amount that the local population could afford.
I had a dental assistant and, in the year I was there, the government started a dental nurse program, and we had a dental nurse at the clinic who was licensed to place fillings on children.
How did you learn about this program?
My prior dental school classmate, Bill Vizollini, recruited me. He had previously volunteered to run the dental clinic, and was continuing his service as the recruiter. The program required a one-year commitment, and I was eager to spend time in the Caribbean and learn about island life. Jamaica was particularly interesting to me due to its history, culture, and music.
What was life like in Jamaica?
We were provided a cottage to live in, a car to drive, and a stipend to cover living expenses. The money taken in from the clinic covered all of its operating expenses. We drove 63 miles to Kingston to purchase dental supplies. The car afforded us the opportunity to travel around the island on the weekends.
The Jamaicans treated us very well and made us feel welcome. On the first day we arrived, we took a walk down a back road and on a trail through farmland. A farmer passed us and said, “Welcome! You are free to walk anywhere you would like. You will always be safe. If it is late and if you wish to sleep on the side of the trail, no one will trouble you.”
One dark evening, we drove our car off an embankment out in a field and became stuck. A passerby assured us that we were safe and set out for help. In no time at all, nearly 50 helpful people surrounded us and picked up the car, placing it back on level ground. They were all so happy they could help and give something back to us. We felt we were honored members of the community.
I am a lucky man to have experienced living in a rural Jamaican community.
Do you still practice?
Yes, I have cut back to working three days a week and am looking forward to another overseas volunteer program in the future.
What impact did the Vesper Society dental program have on the Jamaican community?
The dental program provided an extremely rare opportunity for people with limited means to reduce or erase their physical pain. Word spread fast and wide that the clinic was open and available to those who needed help. When we would drive through the community, people along the way would wave at us and yell “Dentist, Dentist” as we passed. The dental service provided access to healthcare that truly helped people. Beyond that, receiving these basic services improved their quality of life and uplifted the community.