Since retiring from his Peabody dental practice and from teaching at Tufts medical and dental schools, Dr. Mel Miller, DDS, has traveled to the poorest corners of the earth, where he has lived in dorms, brushed huge spiders out of his bed, used a hole in the ground for a toilet, guarded himself against deadly diseases, and paid hefty sums in airfare—all of which was done voluntarily.
In 2007, Dr. Miller joined his colleague, Aidee Herman, DMD, M.Sc.D., of the Periodontal Department of Tufts School of Dental Medicine, in a venture far outside the comforts of the Western world. At least once a year, the two dentists, as part of a select group, donate their considerable skills and experience to the most vulnerable of people—impoverished children in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Since the early 1990s, the Massachusetts Hispanic Dental Association (MHDA) has been working to improve the oral health of underserved Latino populations. The first time Dr. Miller joined the group (eight years ago), he says, “I was hooked.” By 2013, Dr. Herman had founded the nonprofit Hispanic International Mission, which was incorporated into the MHDA.
Despite the grueling 12-hour days and the lack of adequate equipment, Dr. Miller is passionate about being part of a team of dentists, faculty, and students who provide dental diagnoses, oral hygiene instructions, prophylaxis, fluoride applications, extractions, and restorative work to children ages three to 17.
After getting a taste of humanitarian work, Dr. Miller also joined Global International Relief of Denver, with which he performs dental work in Nepal, Guatemala, Africa, and Cambodia. Gone are the days of treating patients in a sterile dental office and teaching histology in state-of-the-art classrooms at Tufts. Now, he packs for survival, converges with his team somewhere across the world, and treks into primitive villages to perform work on poor children who have likely never before seen a dentist.
“In Kenya, the children came in vans. They were jam-packed. They lined up by the hundreds. You couldn’t see the end,” says Dr. Miller during an interview in Marblehead, where he lives. “They had to take off their shoes before entering the clinic because they were caked with mud and dirt. They had socks, but their feet stuck through. They might as well not have had them.
“The children are wonderful. They’re very appreciative. Their manner is stoic; they hardly ever cry. We do cleanings, sealants, fillings, extractions, and we give them basic toothbrushing instructions. These kids will show their siblings and others in the village what to do and how to floss. We see abscesses and infections, too. Pain? Yes. They just put up with it,” he says.
Dr. Miller says the volunteers and interns who comprise the dental team have to demonstrate that they’ve done community service. The four to six dental professionals and 10 to 12 interns and volunteers also have to be able to endure meager accommodations.
“We live in dorms in all the countries we visit. In Ecuador we stayed with nuns in a convent. In Nepal we stayed with [Buddhist monks] in their monastery. In Peru, we had to get rid of big spiders in our bunks. We saw tarantulas on the ground. If you are squeamish, if you’re not willing to take some risks, don’t come,” he warns.
“Haiti will make you cry,” he goes on. “In one mission we saw about a thousand children over eight days…. There were wooden boards for walls; you could look out and see the chickens in the yard. There were folding chairs and flashlights. The headrests were our own laps or another person’s hands. There are no X-rays, no health histories. We bring Novocaine, bibs, gloves, and masks, and we leave everything there. They have dentists there, but they treat the people who have money,” says Dr. Miller.
Despite all that he has seen, or perhaps because of it, Dr. Miller is always content, bright, and optimistic. The perks of his humanitarian work—aside from the satisfaction it gives him—are experiencing the world and meeting like-minded people. The only time he does not appear elated is when he speaks about the “hand-to-mouth” existence of the children.
With the Hispanic International Mission, Dr. Miller has performed dentistry on thousands of children across Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Galapagos Islands, Peru, and Honduras. With Global International Relief, he has treated children in Kenya, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and this summer, he adds San Martin Jilotepeque, Guatemala. His grasp of languages includes Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, and a smattering of Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.
“Dr. Miller is on my board of directors,” says Dr. Herman, a native of Venezuela. “I love him because he has experience. He’s a great dentist and has a terrific personality. He’s still a hard-working person. I hope to have the vitality he has.”
Dr. Herman is preparing for a mission to San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. The team will see 100 patients a day for a week. Her group has been to the Dominican Republic before, but never to San Pedro de Macoris. She says her goal is to “not forget” a country—to return to see if it has improved.
A pescatarian, Dr. Miller is healthy and robust. He has great energy and looks years younger than he is. He embodies the Talmudic phrase he likes to quote, “Whoever saves one life saves the world.”