SAY CHEESE: Alstonville couple John and Helen Niven set up two dental clinics in Nepal to help improve oral hygiene in the region. Pictured is a before and after shot of one patient's teeth.
SAY CHEESE: Alstonville couple John and Helen Niven set up two dental clinics in Nepal to help improve oral hygiene in the region. Pictured is a before and after shot of one patient's teeth. Cathryn McLauchlan

Alstonville couple change lives, and mouths, in Nepal

WHEN Alstonville couple John and Helen Niven travelled to Tibet for a holiday in 2011 they never imagined they would return a year later to open a dental clinic.

But it was Nepalese tour guide Ang Tshering Sherpa who persisted they visit his village, and specifically, his new medical centre.

Mrs Niven said it took a lot of thought and planning, but the following year their dental clinic opened for the first time in a village called Junbesi, 300km east of Kathmandu.

“To get there you have to fly from Kathmandu to a little airport, then you have to trek for five hours, and we originally thought that was beyond us,” she said.

“Ang said his people would love a dentist but they don’t have access to dentistry at all,” Mr Niven said.

“We did research on portable dental equipment and set it up from there.”

Their dental services have since expanded to another town, Ghandruk, and every year Mr and Mrs Niven endeavour to visit both clinics.

Mr Niven works in the clinics as the dentist while Mrs Niven is the practice manager.

“We’ve done about five visits each, and the fact that we’re going back, we see repeat patients and you can see they’re starting to get the hang of what they should be doing,” Mr Niven said.

Mrs Niven said it was just as much about educating the communities as treating their dental problems.

“Their teeth have gaps everywhere ... and the little children’s teeth, it’s really sad,” she said.

“Four and five-year-olds with nearly every tooth decayed.

“They have access to lots of cheap sweets and they haven’t quite got the idea that if you eat them you have to clean your teeth straight away.

“All the children get a toothbrush, colouring-in sheet related to dental health and some textas.”

Earlier this year the couple was met with some very good luck before the Nepal earthquakes hit.

They had just finished a visit to the two clinics, hopped on a plane and eight hours later the first earthquake hit.

“That’s just when our plane was scheduled, we got very lucky,” Mr Niven said.

“Unfortunately in the Nepal earthquakes the medical centre was damaged though, and it will have to be relocated because the mountain beside it has become unstable,” Mrs Niven said.

The couple has just finished fundraising for their next trip to Nepal in 2016.

Each year they put together calendars using photos taken during their dental clinic trips and sell them to friends, family and community members.

Mrs Niven said they felt like they belonged in the communities now.

“We stand out like a sore tooth, because we’re both reasonably tall and I’ve got the white hair, but they accept us ... they hold welcome and goodbye ceremonies for us every time,” she said.



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