Helping hands: voluntary dentistry in Cambodia

Dr Topalov and local hygienist Teav Sreypech treating a patient in the dental clinic in M’Lop Tapang charity, Cambodia. Photo: Courtesy of River Dental

Dr Tim Topalov, of River Dental in Gympie, Queensland, was listening to the radio in his car one evening when he heard something that changed his life forever. By Rachel Smith

For most of us, giving back might involve buying a raffle ticket here and there for a good cause. Writing a cheque to a few charities at Christmas. Or making the kids give up some of their toys for families who can’t afford any. For others, the urge to help goes further—right to the doorstep of developing countries who don’t have the kind of medical or dental facilities we in Australia take for granted.

For Dr Tim Topalov from River Dental in Gympie, Queensland, the idea came while listening to the radio one night in his car. “I was driving home and heard a dentist talking about volunteering in Ethiopia. I thought, ‘Yes, I want to do that,’” he remembers. “I wanted to work abroad, with people less fortunate. We certainly have poor people in Australia, but they can go to the hospital with an abscess or infection and be dealt with. In third world countries, it’s often not dealt with, ever—unless it’s by a volunteer doctor or dentist.”

The 59-year-old initially investigated going to Ethiopia, but decided it was too far and potentially too unstable. His practice assistants did some research and found M’Lop Tapang in Cambodia. Four hours’ drive from the capital of Phnom Penh, in the coastal town of Sihanoukville, it was doable. “Also, they only take volunteers who have useful skills. You can’t just go and play with the kids or offer to sweep the floors. They need dentists, ear specialists, eye specialists, that sort of thing.”

Clearly, Dr Topalov is not a guy who likes to muck around: four months after that light bulb moment, he was on a plane to Cambodia. That was in May 2014, and he’s gone every year since. He clearly has a lot of respect for the M’Lop Tapang charity, which was started in 2003 by a woman called Maggie Eno to work with street children and their families.

“She was travelling in Sihanoukville and on her way to volunteer in Calcutta, and she found six homeless children living on the beach under a Tapang tree,” says Dr Topalov. “She fed them, taught them things, protected them, and word quickly spread. Soon there were 30 children, then 40, and with the help of friends, local people and donations, she built the [charity].”

“They only take volunteers who have useful skills. You can’t just go and play with the kids or offer to sweep the floors. They need dentists, ear specialists, eye specialists, that sort of thing.”—Dr Tim Topalov

The name is particularly apt: M’lop roughly translates as ‘shade or protection’ in the Khmer language—and the Tapang tree is also known as an umbrella tree, with foliage that offers protection from the elements. What started as a small initiative is now a lifeline for many, helping over 5,000 disadvantaged children, youth and families in the area.

M’Lop Tapang’s dental clinic was started in 2008 by Melbourne dentist Petrina Bowden, who was travelling at the time, met Maggie and saw a need. “It all started with a mobile chair in a small room and some donated materials,” said Dr Topalov, who now works out of a small clinic the charity built in 2010.

He learned about Petrina’s involvement and gave her a ring while he and his practice assistants were investigating volunteer options. “I asked her, ‘What’s the story? Do you need dentists to come over?’ She said yes, and that the charity relies on visiting dentists—mostly Australians—and that they are the only dentists those children see. That’s how I got involved.”

He says it’s fortunate that the clinic required just general dentistry rather than specialist work. “It’s pretty shocking seeing the little kiddies walking around; two-year-olds sucking on a lolly or juice. We do a lot of fillings, extractions. We have a digital X-ray unit now, so we can do root canal treatment—and we’ll see a lot of teenagers who have huge holes in their front teeth, quite often down to the nerve. It’s pretty sad. You don’t see that happening much in Australia.”

Dr Topalov uses his annual leave to travel to Cambodia and this year, he also took practice manager Cathy Sylvester and two dental assistants (who also gave up their annual leave to go). The team took supplies kindly donated by Henry Schein, Independent, Erskine and Dentavision. Local Gympie businesses donated prizes for the clinic to raffle, to help cover the cost of flights and accommodation.

“If it hasn’t been donated, [M’Lop Tapang] has to buy them. So we’d rather take what we can ourselves, including gloves, masks, supplies, our favourite instruments.”—Dr Tim Topalov

“Although the clinic is stocked with some instruments, local anaesthetic and filling materials, we don’t like using whatever is there, because if it hasn’t been donated, [M’Lop Tapang] has to buy them. So we’d rather take what we can ourselves, including gloves, masks, supplies, our favourite instruments,” explains Dr Topalov.

A typical day might involve treating a busload of school children, or older people from a local village. Dr Topalov treats anyone from ages four to 60. M’Lop Tapang’s hygienist acts as translator. “I can say, ‘Good morning’, ‘Open your mouth’ and ‘Where’s the pain?’ but we’re very fortunate to have her help with the language barrier. Without her, I’d really have to fast-track my Cambodian!”

Although many of the little kids have never seen a dentist before, they’re extremely brave, says Dr Topalov. “They’ll put up with injections and all sorts of things, even if they’re scared and cry a little. I guess deep down they know that it’ll still hurt, or it won’t fix itself. We never force anything on a patient. We might say there’s a big hole somewhere, and if they don’t fix it, you know, the tooth will have to be extracted or they’ll get a toothache. But always, ‘Would you like me to fix it?’ We have to make sure that they say yes. Most of them are strong little characters.”

On a typical trip, the team arrives on a Friday and has an ‘educational weekend’, doing cultural tours and visiting local islands. On the Sunday, they make the car trip to Sihanoukville and are picked up first thing Monday to go to M’Lop Tapang. “We work from 8am to 5pm. It’s go-go-go, with an hour for lunch,” says Dr Topalov. “We fly back the following Sunday. My staff can stay longer if they wish but my time is limited, so I don’t get to see a lot of the country.”

On a basic level, volunteering gives you an experience you don’t get as a tourist. But it means much more to those who do it. “It’s made me more patient and a little more accepting,” says Dr Topalov. “It’s just a wonderful, unselfish act, and sure, we’re helping, but we also gain so much out of it ourselves. Life is so cheap over there, and when you realise you can really make a big difference in someone’s life, it makes you appreciate what we have here so much more.”

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4 Comments

  1. Volunteering at M’Lop Tapang is a very special experience, great work Tim. I have been fortunate enough to also volunteer at the clinic and it is truly rewarding.
    I would like to clarify though that M’Lop Tapang is definitely NOT an orphanage. M’Lop Tapang has won numerous international awards as an exemplary locally based NGO often cited as a solution to local problems that prevents the need for orphanages. The Cambodian government has recognized with UNICEF that orphanages create more problems than they solve and are currently seeking solutions to reunite children in orphanages with their families and communities. In formulating their plans to find a way to close Cambodian orphanages UNICEF and the Cambodian Health minister spent a week at M’Lop Tapang seeking their advice on how to proceed. It would be nice and appreciated if Bite Magazine could clarify this in their next edition. For more information M’Lop Tapangs website http://www.mlpotapang.org and https://thinkchildsafe.org/ are great resources.

    1. CORRECTION

      Thank you for your clarification, Malcolm, and other readers who have contacted us to point out that MLop Tapang is not an orphanage.

      An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified MLop Tapang as an orphanage. It is in fact a charity that works with street children and their families.

      The text has been corrected.

      Bite apologises for the error.

      —Editor

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