Montgomery College - Endless Possibilities - HomeMy MC Login
Campuses at Germantown, Rockville and Takoma Park, Maryland Germantown Campus Home Rockville Campus Home Takoma Park Campus Home

Montgomery College Student Success Stories

Gentle Dentistry
Insights, Spring ’05

Dr. Usa Bunnag ’90Her digital pictures from northern Thailand resemble scenes out of National Geographic or Conde Nast Traveler—breathtaking mountain peaks shrouded in mist, lush tropical vegetation, straw-topped huts, and wild pigs by the roadside. Not to be mistaken for an American tourist, Dr. Usa Bunnag ’90, a Bethesda dentist, travels with forceps, medications, a supply of toothbrushes, T-shirts, and loads of goodwill— the necessary accoutrements for her missions.

Twice a year, Bunnag leads a team of volunteers who leave behind family, careers, and the comforts of home to bring donated supplies and medical care to people in rural areas of Thailand. They operate as Smile on Wings, a charity Bunnag established in 2003. “I used to be afraid to fly, but I got over it. Now I want to do good while I can.” Pointing to one picture, she laughs at the deep ruts carved into the dirt road. “Look! We rode for hours, up 5,000 feet above sea level to the tribal people in the northern villages. Sometimes the only transportation is an elephant—so this was OK.”

On her recent trip in February, Bunnag led the Smile on Wings team to the northern Thai-
Myanmar border. Far from the tsunami-scrubbed resort beaches, they treated dozens of patients each day in a makeshift clinic pre-arranged by a local doctor. “Until a few years ago, this was a very dangerous area,” said Bunnag, who brings an interpreter with her to communicate. The region has been disrupted for years by Myanmar’s antigovernment guerrillas, drug smugglers, and Thai military protecting the country’s autonomy. According to the World Health Organization, they may have as many as one million undocumented migrants living there, many with no access to health services.

“In an emergency here,” said Bunnag, “forget it, you just die.” Before 2002, Bunnag hadn’t been back to Thailand since she was 14, when she was sent to live with her father in the United States. By then, she had spent a lifetime away. She learned English during high school at Montgomery Blair, in Silver Spring, Md., where she graduated with honors. From age 18, she supported herself working odd jobs then, as a dental assistant. She married, studied at Montgomery College, and graduated from Howard University Dental School with honors—while raising three sons. Bunnag recalls: “I just didn’t sleep a lot then. I would put the kids to bed, sleep a few hours, and study from midnight to 3 a.m. every day. Then get up at 5:30 a.m. and go back to school. My husband was such a big help. We worked together to achieve this goal. At that time, I didn’t know if it was going to happen because it took so long. Financially we were struggling.”

When her mother died in Thailand, they had no money to fly her back for the funeral. When she did eventually return to Thailand, Bunnag realized that as a trained dentist and an American, she had great resources to provide help to those in need there. She started by networking with her dental patients and colleagues, one a former adviser to the Minister of Health in Thailand. Just months later, she had enlisted her first Smile on Wings volunteers and put together the inaugural mission in October 2003.

To date, Smile on Wings has performed five missions, each with a new team of volunteer professionals who pay many of their own expenses and use vacation leave to be absent from their jobs. “Whenever we return from a mission, the volunteers who went tell others about their experiences, and we always get new people who want to be part of it. That’s good because there’s always a need.”

“When we went for the tsunami relief work in January, we were a group of nine: four doctors,
two nurses, two translators (in Thailand), a computer specialist/photographer, and a community outreach coordinator.” Bunnag had assembled the team in a matter of days after hearing about the disaster, no easy task considering it was just days after Christmas when many doctors’ offices were closed. The local ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV, picked up the story, aired a piece on the relief mission, and the phone started ringing. Bunnag suddenly found herself in charge of more than 700 pounds of donated medical supplies, toothbrushes, and dental tools, and upwards of $20,000 in donations that Smile on Wings volunteers had hastily collected from local hospitals, family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers—plus a news crew that would be shadowing the mission.

“The Thai news wasn’t reporting much on the local people who lost everything. Instead, they were focusing on the death toll and the foreigners, so having the TV team with me was a great opportunity to get more help to them—although I didn’t know really what to expect there.” When they arrived in Thailand with a loose plan “to help,” Bunnag met with an official at the Provincial Public Health Center, who approved her proposal to work at Bang Muang, the largest refugee camp in the area. For seven days straight, the team worked morning to night among the camp’s 5,000 survivors, including 300–400 children and 97 orphans, seeing 200 to 300 patients a day.

“I [was] so relieved that we had work to do there.” In fact, the amount of work was daunting.
In addition to various physical illnesses and injuries, the people suffered serious psychological trauma: “It will never be erased from their memories. How can they go through life and not think about the loved ones who were lost and torn from their arms during the disaster?” Bunnag likes to help in simple ways. In the northern villages, she bought out the local bakery each day, so she could hand out treats for the children. She bought up every handweaving she could find, and she has personally established scholarships for six children—girls who otherwise had zero academic options. “At the refugee camp in Southern Thailand [the tsunami area], the people need activities while they wait for the government to build houses and bring in basic necessities. So, for example, we bought equipment for the physical therapy people who used to work in the resort areas. Once they had tables and towels, they could work and help other people with wellness treatments. It’s a great feeling to be able to bring the donations we receive directly to the people who need it most.”

They also bought four fishing boats, which the fishermen will share until more can be provided, and delivered 18 bicycles for refugee children paid from donations by children at Watkins Mill Elementary School in Montgomery Village, Md. Bunnag’s husband, Aurachun, a skilled artisan, will go back next time and teach people how to make knives, a skill they can use for work or just occupy their time.

Jet lag? What jet leg? Bunnag is buoyed up by the potential and the opportunity to do more. “I heard so many sad stories, and I just want to help while I am able to do it. I’m just a dentist, but I have a vision for what I want to do.”