Ukraine Mission Trip

On April 21, 2023 our crew, a culmination of doctors, EMTs, operations and finance professionals embarked on a 10 day journey that would take us just outside the Ukraine border on a dental mission trip.

As a new dentist, I believe in a value driven life evidenced by my actions. One of those actionable values I hold true is service. I started to understand true poverty on my first dental mission trip to Guatemala in 2019. As Ms. Kate Davidoski will say, “mission trips change the way we can look at the world. We can ‘do something’.”

Since Guatemala, I’ve been intentional about giving back locally and abroad. This Ukraine mission trip was a natural fit into that plan. My partner in practice, Dr. Robert G. McNeill and I knew we wanted to organize an international mission trip after being inducted into the International College of Dentists in 2022. I had experience working and learning from surgeons all over the world through my Harvard Surgical Leadership Program in 2022. Based on several first hand accounts of the war in Ukraine, Bob and I couldn’t imagine a more perfect spot to live out our mission to connect, discover and inspire.

We decided to work with the International Medical Relief program, an excellent resource for global medical mission trips and made a quick connection through fellow Harvard fellow, Shauna King, co-founder of IMR. Bob and I started to source funding for our trip. I had just been named an American Dental Association (ADA) 10 top dentists under 10 years in practice and with that donated all of my award money to sponsor an ADA team member, Ms. Kate Davidoski to join us on our adventure. Ms. Davidoski is a Senior Manager for Continuing Education at the ADA and had experience with non-profit initiatives. In fact, Kate founded her own initiative in 2016 called Bags of Love, that provides basic toiletry, comfort and safety items in backpacks for children in the foster care system in Wisconsin. Kate is someone who will continue to change the world.

Bob and I also utilized funding available for dental mission trips through the ICD’s Global Visionary Fund, the Henry Schein Cares Program and through in-kind donations from ADA member dentists – specifically Dr. Brittaney Glazer, a general dentist in Murphy, Tx who purchased several new surgical instruments for this mission trip. Without the overwhelming generosity on all fronts, this trip would not have been possible.

Part of going on a mission trip, is having an adaptable team and the right mindset. Mission work can be highly uncomfortable and at times, dangerous. When Bob and I were looking at who to take with us on this trip, two doctors came to mind immediately. One was the ADA 15th district Trustee, Dr. Craig Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong is a private practice general dentist out of Austin, Tx who has been involved in Texas Mission of Mercy events and has served as a volunteer leader at every level of organized dentistry for the past 20 years. Craig, would be our rock. The strong leader that everyone could get behind in this challenging environment, and he absolutely rose to the occasion. The other ‘must have’ was Dr. Hana Alberti, a general dentist out of Wisconsin who serves as the Senior Director at the ADA Center for Dental Practice Policy. Dr. Alberti has a special connection to Eastern Europe, as several of her family members currently live in Czechia. Hana’s peaceful demeanor and clinical expertise served as a foundation for patient wellbeing on the trip.

This trip was especially impactful for Dr. McNeill because he would be bringing his eldest son. Bob has three boys, David, Johnny and Nate and he was excited to introduce his oldest son, David to dentistry on this trip. David is a pre-dental student and a graduate of UC Santa Barbara. He is planning on applying to dental school this next cycle and jumped at the opportunity to serve alongside his dad on the trip.

We met our host and fellow mission teammates on the first day of orientation. Our host, Lana, is from Belarus and China she has also been displaced by war and politics from her home. Mr. Thomas Meehan is an EMT from Colorado and Mr. Alex Tolksdorf, a Ukranian-American working as a finance professional in Michigan. I can’t emphasize how much these three taught our group over the week. When I think about adaptable people, Lana, Alex and Tom are at the top of my list. They all answered the call to service in a way that was far outside their comfort zones.

We were divided into different groups and divided to work at the different shelters throughout the week. That first day, we went to a shelter that was home to the forgotten people of the war: the poorest and sickest Ukrainians displaced from their homes and without the health, family or resources to make a living in Poland. Dr. Armstrong, Tom, Alex and I were assigned to this shelter. We met our Ukrainian translators, one of which touched my heart deeply. Her name was Alena Chyzh. Alena had never met a female dentist. She told me “I didn’t know women could do anything in healthcare”. I knew immediately I would have the opportunity to change her perspective and maybe inspire a new perspective. I made sure Alena would work with me hands on, to show her a person, especially a woman, could do anything they put their mind to.

Together, our teams provided access to dental care to 2,560 Ukrainians displaced by the war. I was impacted by Dr. Alberti’s tenderness towards the people she treated, I’ve never seen any doctor so kind in her actions. Hana has a true gift when it comes to treating patients. Ms. Davidoski was in her element delivering toys and stickers to all of the children at the shelter. Some of these children had lost siblings, parents, and friends from the war. It was heartfelt to see Kate work her magic and bring these children so much laughter, joy and most of all hope.

Seeing Bob and his son work hand in hand was a unique experience. I can’t imagine every parent gets to work alongside their adult children in a clinical setting, let alone a mission trip in a war torn population. Since I’ve known Bob, some of his proudest moments have centered around the achievements of his three boys. He has taken his boys on mission trips around the world with the intention of giving them a unique humanitarian perspective. Observing David work alongside Bob, I couldn’t help but see the love and respect both have for each other. At the end of each day, it was heartening to hear Bob talk about how proud he was of David for his service during the mission.

Dr. Armstrong gave the most inspirational messages to our group during debrief, he talked about the impact the children and patients had on him. Craig was the cornerstone for this trip. He has a way of being steady through a variety of challenges and with his clinical experience was always a go-to for advice. Without a doubt, we all viewed Craig as the rock and stability for our group.

Mr. Tolksdorf gave us a unique insight on the geopolitics of the ongoing war. Alex was always a wealth of information about the country and different humanitarian efforts. I found myself trying to absorb as much information from him as possible as he effortless recounted the history of his country while also showing a perspective on the meaning of language to a country beyond simply communication.

As we all were in the final debriefing session, we each shared impactful memories of the trip and the lasting impressions. I’m a better human after experiencing this mission trip. If you’re thinking about getting involved in humanitarian aid or have an interest in medical/dental mission trips, International Medical Relief is a great organization to get started. I’ll list their website at the bottom of this page. Also, Bob and I run a YouTube channel, Between Two Teeth that we utilize to chronical our journey on this mission. Tune into some episodes to get a real time feel for what we experienced on our journey.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and they day you find out why” – Mark Twain.