In 1974, Gayle Cheatwood had just finished her first year as a dental student at Creighton University when he was invited on an eight-week trip in Christian missionary dentistry to a small village in the Central African Republic.
Suffice it to say, it was far from Omaha, in Neb., Where the university is located, let alone Brawley, where Cheatwood was born and raised.
The experience marked the spirits. He remembers that people sometimes walked for days to get treatment for a toothache. Their faces were often swollen and they were in great pain. Cheatwood appreciated being able to treat them and give them immediate relief. He also remembers a father who walked for two days to seek help for his 5-year-old son whose infection was so severe that he became gangrenous.
“Noma, they call it,” Cheatwood said of the disease, orofacial gangrene, which tends to target malnourished children in developing countries.
The child was hospitalized immediately, but it was already too late.
“He died – of a toothache! he recalls, “It really had an effect on me. So many people die from toothaches that can be treated so easily. I just broke my heart. I wanted to do whatever I could to help.
Cheatwood graduated on time from Creighton in June 1975 and passed the California Dental Board exam on its first try in August. He moved to Holtville at the suggestion of his father, Arnold, who had heard that the town needed a dentist, and has been practicing there ever since.
For several years, Cheatwood focused on building his private practice, but in 1983 he began making regular mission trips to the former Mexican penal colony, Islas Marías. He estimates that he visited the islands an average of three times a year until 2000. During this time he began to make other missionary trips, first to Brazil.
Cheatwood estimates that he has led 150 missionary dental trips over the years. These trips have included destinations such as China, Romania, Haiti, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea, to name a few. He works with translators, of course, but he masters a few useful phrases – “Where does that hurt?” ” “Open the mouth.” “Close your mouth.” – in several languages.
Sometimes travel can be scary. Perhaps most dangerous was for Sri Lanka following the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004 in the Indian Ocean, which killed an estimated 228,000 people in 15 countries.
“We were working with the Tamils, and the Tamils were basically the enemy of the Sri Lankan army,” Cheatwood recalls. “So we would change. One day we were working with the Sri Lankan people, and another day we were working with the Tamils, but the people we were working with where the missionaries were were the Tamils, and there were a few times we had to pick it all up. our stuff and zoom out of there. We had scouts on little motorcycles, and they were like, “They’re coming. ‘Who is coming?’ “People with clubs! You have to go, go, go! ‘”
Fortunately, Cheatwood’s gear on these trips is designed to be transported quickly and easily. Years ago he adapted the design of the mobile dental station he encountered to make it lightweight, compact, hygienic and portable. The entire unit is constructed from corrugated plastic and consists of a reclined patient chair with a headrest that decomposes to fit into a box which itself fits into a worktable. Corrugated plastic makes the unit both easy to clean and durable.
Cheatwood said he had never had a failure on any of the units, even after being tested on a patient weighing 400 pounds.
“At first I would bring duct tape, just in case,” he said. “I kept thinking that one of these things was going to break or crack, but it never did.”
Cheatwood has the units manufactured by a box company and offers them for sale through the Christian Dental Society, an organization he joined in the early 1990s, made up of 800 to 1,000 dentists nationwide. . He is past president and current member of the advisory board.
All proceeds from unit sales go to a scholarship fund for dental students, he said, although in recent times sales have not been very rapid due to the pandemic. He thinks he has around 100 portable dental stations in stock.
In 2008, Cheatwood started their own nonprofit called Dental Vision Mission. In addition to facilitating its dental mission work, the organization also collects reading glasses for distribution to people in need.
“The reason I started was because when I was in my 40s I started needing reading glasses,” he explained. “So we were in Islas Marías, and one of the prisoners couldn’t read, so I gave him my glasses. Dude, it just turned on. So I said, ‘You can have them.’ Then I started to take a few pairs, like maybe five, six, seven, 10 pairs each time, and give them away. And now it’s over, we make over 1000 pairs on each trip.
Cheatwood and his wife, Nita, have been a staple of Dental Vision Mission’s travels, and they are usually joined by a group of other dentists and medical professionals, ministers, family members (his children and several of her grandchildren have been on trips at this point) and basically anyone else who is willing to lend a helping hand. Although the pandemic has put the kibosh on most of his missionary work over the past two years, Cheatwood has continued to hold workshops teaching other dentists to practice portable dentistry. These sessions usually take place either at the men’s home at the Turning Point Ministries in Holtville or just across the border in Mexico.
Cheatwood, now 73, hopes to hit the road soon. He has a mission trip scheduled for January 12-20 to Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico.
He said the job has never ceased to be rewarding, as people generally respond favorably to kindness and compassion.
“That’s what Jesus did,” Cheatwood said. “Jesus showed compassion and that people were ready to listen to his message. And so we’re basically doing the same thing. We show compassion through eye and dental care. And then the people are ready to listen to these pastors, and it really opened a lot of doors. This is what motivates me to continue. “F