For Donnachadh O Morain, gaining a dental qualification was the opportunity to help some of the world’s poorest people. Here, Bruce Oxley meets the much-travelled Kerryman
Donnchadh O Morain’s wanderlust was inspired by a childhood in Africa and has seen the Cork University Dental School graduate travel to Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and Australia to treat patients and carry out charity work.
Born in Lesotho to Irish parents, Donnchadh spent the first two years of his life in the land-locked enclave in Southern Africa, returning when he was five and finally leaving for good at the age of eight when the political situation became too unstable.
His father Padraig was involved in the Lesotho Ireland Technical Education Project, an aid programme that involved building schools and then teaching the local population technical subjects such as mechanical drawing, woodwork and metalwork. At the time, Lesotho was the third poorest country in the world and in dire need of overseas aid.
But, despite growing up surrounded by extreme poverty and often in times of political upheaval, Donnchadh’s memories are, in the main, positive.
He said: “Living as an ex-pat in Lesotho was a fantastic experience during times of peace.
“We spent a lot of time travelling throughout South Africa and the lifestyle was unbelievable out there. So, from that point of view, most of my memories are very good.
“However, during times of trouble things were a little bit different. There was high security in our house, we had armed guards at our gates, all the windows were barred and there were buttons on the walls to alert rapid response units – an armoured car would come to the house when it was pressed.
“On one occasion, we had to be brought home from school and my dad had to be smuggled home, but that was times of trouble, which I must say didn’t happen very often throughout the period. But towards the end it was happening a little bit more often and that was why we had to leave.”
The O Morain family left Lesotho in 1993 and returned to the family home in the village of Camp in Kerry, where Donnchadh started out on the road to becoming a dentist. And, it was actually a visit to his local dentist that helped him make up his mind as to his chosen career.
While trying to decide between a career as a vet or a dentist, he got talking to his own dentist whose father and brother were working as vets in the area. He explained to Donnchadh that when he was a student he had applied to do veterinary science but lost out in random selection and got dentistry instead.
Donnchadh takes up the story: “He said losing out was the best thing that ever happened to him. He told me that he often saw his father and brother out in the pouring rain, in the corner of a field. He explained that, while dentistry can be tough at times, it is a nine-to-five job and you can leave after five o’clock.
“So the lifestyle appealed. It was practical and medically orientated, so that is what really swung it for me.”
After completing his studies at Cork University, during which he took time out to travel to Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, he gave in to his itchy feet and made the short trip over to Kinross in Scotland to start his career in dentistry.
While working as an associate in general practice and then part time at Kirkcaldy Hospital, Donnchadh’s mind started to turn towards how he could combine his professional life with his love of travel and passion for charity work that can be traced to his early days in Africa.
He said: “I’d seen poverty from a very young age and I had experienced a great deal of poverty living in Lesotho. So when I qualified as a dentist, I realised that I had a profession that meant I could do some good in a third-world country.”
However, when he started looking for charities that could make use of his skills he had difficulty finding organisations that were looking for dentists.
He said: “My thoughts were to return to Africa, but a lot of the organisations there didn’t have dentists working for them; it was a lot more medically orientated. They had a lot of options for doctors but most of the organisations didn’t have a lot of options for dentists.
“That’s when I turned towards South America and became involved in a project in Peru.”
After his problems finding a suitable charity, Donnchadh contacted his grandmother’s brother, who is a priest in Manchester. Through his charitable connections, he was put in touch with Father Jack Davis, one of the organisers of the Los Amigos charity (www.losamigos-chimbote.org) based in the coastal town of Chimbote in Peru.
Throughout his six weeks in South America during the summer of 2008, Donnchadh helped set up a new dental surgery in an established medical centre and treat in the region of 800 patients. Donnchadh explained that he was expecting a low standard of oral health but not to the extent that he saw. He said: “The oral hygiene was practically non-existent, the reason being that a lot of these people didn’t even have running water.
“Their houses were literally made of straw, with a bucket in the corner and maybe a straw mattress on the bare ground.
“Many of the kids would drink can after can of Inca Kola, which was even cheaper than water. The amount of sugar in this drink, allied to the lack of oral hygiene, literally ate through their teeth. A lot of the kids and many of the adults that came in to see us had very poor dentition.”
Donnchadh explained that he was carrying out extractions on a daily basis, but the main focus was educating the children and their parents in oral hygiene. As well as handing out toothbrushes and toothpaste, he visited the local school and, with the aid of a translator, helped spread the message of the importance of good oral health to the kids. In the clinic he also worked alongside a dental student from the local hospital and was able to demonstrate a few techniques that his young colleague was maybe not familiar with in South America and pass on some of his knowledge.
Despite his obvious passion for the charity, Donnchadh is quite reserved when he describes the impact he had on the people of Chimbote and their overall oral health. He said: “I wasn’t there for a huge period of time, I came and scratched the surface.
“But we set up a dental clinic and since then I’ve managed to send five people out there, either colleagues of mine or people who have heard about my trip.”
After Peru, Donnchadh returned to practice in Kinross for six months before moving to Bristol, where he spent a year doing oral and maxillofacial surgery. When his time in England was up, he took the opportunity to again spread his wings and he departed for a two-month tour of east Africa.
Although this was ostensibly a travelling holiday, he was determined to take on some volunteer work, and the adventure travel company he was with put him in touch with a charity called Soft Power in Uganda (www.softpowereducation.com).
The charity’s focus was on general education and teaching the young people of the region about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. And, just as in Peru, where Donnchadh was aware of the importance of oral hygiene education, he acknowledged that education is one of the most, if not the most important element of charitable aid projects.
He said: “There is no point in sending money out there, because they will spend it and in five year’s time they will still have nothing. But if we can set up education and health projects then that’s probably their main way of getting out of poverty.”
After leaving Uganda, Donnchadh travelled around Kenya and Rwanda before returning to Ireland at the beginning of March this year.
He then secured a post at Glasgow Dental Hospital and, as the job didn’t begin until August, he saw an opportunity to head off again for a few weeks before settling down in the west of Scotland.
This time it was Australia, and Donnchadh flew out in April with the hope of securing a few weeks’ service with the flying dentists service.
Like the more famous flying doctors, the dental service flies into remote rural areas in central Australia to offer treatment to the local people.
Once he has completed his stint down under, he plans to head over to New Zealand before stopping off in Chimbote again to see how things are going and put in a few more hours in the surgery. After all that travelling the Kerryman will stay in Glasgow for at least a year or so at the dental hospital where he hopes to undergo orthodontic training. He has yet to decide on where he is likely to study but one thing is certain: he will be heading off to do more voluntary work as soon as possible.
He said: “Until you go out to these places, where poverty is prevalent, you can’t really grasp what life is like there. If you stay in Ireland or the UK, you don’t fully realise how the rest of the world is living.
“They have nothing, literally nothing. No food, no running water. Trying to provide some help for these people is very important to me.
“It is very fulfilling to have a profession where you can provide a service to people who are underprivileged .
“You feel an awful lot better for doing something like that.”
If you would like to find out more about volunteering in Peru, contact Donnchadh on +44 (0) 7795 016 504 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org