I knew I had a broken tooth that needed treating. I hadn’t scheduled a dental appointment because we didn’t have the money for the exams, x-rays, and treatment. Along with the other fifty million Americans who don’t have health or dental insurance and have fallen on tough times, I self-managed the best I knew how. I avoided sugary foods and drinks. I was diligent with flossing, brushing, and mouth rinses. But that morning, I knew I was in trouble when the small bump on my upper gum doubled in size overnight. That small innocuous bump that hadn’t hurt at all was suddenly very large and very painful.
Fear and pain pushed me into action. I called twenty dentists trying to find someone who would help me. I had almost no money to pay for treatment. After nineteen phone calls and one in-office visit, I wasn’t able to find a single dentist that would help me without a pre-payment of $500–$1000. I didn’t have it.
I felt panicky. I couldn’t stop thinking about the horrible story of Deamonte Driver. Deamonte was the twelve-year-old boy in Washington DC who died last February when the infection from his own tooth abscess spread to his brain. (His hard-working single mom with three jobs had lost Medicaid and didn’t have dental insurance.) It was clear that the situation I was in was scary and could be life-threatening. I kept thinking how stupid it would be to die because of this and how I couldn’t let that happen because of my three-year-old daughter. “I have to be here for her. I have to,” I kept repeating to myself.
After four days of searching, the twenty-first dentist told me to come in. He took one look at the tooth and said without hesitation, “The tooth must come out today. I’ll do it for you for the amount of money you have.” After the surgery, with gauze in my mouth, the dentist quietly described to me how the infection had already punched a hole through my bone.
I can’t describe the feeling of gratitude and relief I had when I left his office that day. Without his generosity, things could have turned out very differently for me.
Two weeks later, infection and pain gone, I sat curled on the couch watching God Grew Tired of Us. It follows the story of a few of the Lost Boys of Sudan who were relocated to the United States. (For more about the Lost Boys, click here.) After watching the documentary, I found myself thinking about my tooth emergency again. What if I lived in Southern Sudan? My tooth abscess was scary and potentially life-threatening here in the United States where there is a greater chance of finding help. If I lived in Sudan, where medical care is nearly non-existent, it would likely have been fatal. And my little girl would be without a mother.
The mental exercise of transplanting myself from the United States to Sudan has deeply affected me. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, described it before I experienced it:
“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
My need for dental care is the same as the need of a thirty-eight-year-old Sudanese woman who needs medical or dental treatment. I needed, as she now needs, the compassion and generosity of a stranger. A dentist I did not know was willing to reach out and make a difference for me, and in turn, my family, and the rest of my life. Thank you, Dr. Hrankowski.
Now, I’d like to reach out and let you know about an opportunity to do the same for a former Lost Boy, John Bul Dau, and his community in Southern Sudan. If you are reading this and can help, if each of us will reach out and touch one person with a donation, no matter how large or small, together we can create thousands of happy endings like mine.