Crimson Thread of Connections – Jeff Phillips and SmileHigh North America

By Anne Baer
photos by Dr. Jeff Phillips


Some people have an extraordinary capacity for making connections, weaving together experiences and the people they meet into a fabric that provides far-flung comfort for others. When Dr. Jeff Phillips first visited Nepal in 2007 to compete in the Mt. Everest Base Camp Marathon, he did not know his connections from summers in Canada would shape his next adventure. “I knew I wanted to volunteer in either Nepal or Africa. Then one spring, our Rotary Group was invited to Nepal by a long-time friend from Vancouver Island (British Columbia, Canada), and I was hooked.” A lifelong outdoorsman, he was attracted by both the incredible mountains and the simple joy found in the Nepali people.

In the past four years, Dr. Phillips has made five, month-long volunteer dental trips to Nepal. For two years he worked with the Nepal Education Fund of Canada, a small charity that sponsors extremely poor children to attend school. Dr. Phillips self-funded these trips and created an extensive cache of surgical instruments, supplies, and equipment.

Desperate for Dentistry
The need for dental care in Nepal is staggering. With a population of 30 million, the country is served by just 500 dentists. Most citizens will not see a dentist in their lifetime. Dental caries and periodontal disease are rampant throughout the population with untreated pain and infection affecting nearly everyone.

In April 2015, an avalanche above Mt. Everest base camp rocked the area, killing 16 Sherpas who were preparing the climbing route for their Western clients. That day, Dr. Phillips emailed a climbing friend at base camp and offered to bring his dental care to the Khumbu region of Mt. Everest in support of the Sherpa community. With the help of his climbing friends, Dr. Phillips met members of the Sherpa community living in the Seattle area and started preparations to bring a dental camp to the Khumbu.

History of Humanitarian Efforts in The Khumbu
In 1953 after summiting Mt. Everest with Tensing Norgay Sherpa, Sir Edmund Hillary dedicated his life to enriching the lives of the Sherpa community. He helped build schools and hospitals throughout the Khumbu. The first school “Sir Ed” established was in Khumjung at 12,500 feet where Dr. Phillips arranged the dental camp. In a most serendipitous encounter, Dr. Phillips and his Nepali assistant/translator/dental student, Ngima Mendewa Sherpa, arrived in Khumjung on the last day of a dental camp conducted by SmileHigh of New Zealand. “Sir Ed” had supported and inspired Dr. Julian Haszard of New Zealand and Dr. Mingma Sherpa of Nepal to create SmileHigh in 2003 to bring dental health and education to the Sherpa communities of the Khumbu.

A Partnership for Good
Upon meeting, Drs. Haszard and Phillips immediately realized how beneficial they could be to each other. Dr. Phillips could learn from the decade-long experience of SmileHigh, and SmileHigh could benefit from exposure to the enormous dental market of North America.

Back in the U.S. in October 2015, Dr. Julian Haszard, Dr. Mingma Sherpa and SmileHigh’s administrator, Trevor Moyle, met at Dr. Phillips’ home to discuss their collaboration. The result was the creation of SmileHigh North America, led by Dr. Phillips as well as a mutual plan to develop a sustainable year-round dental clinic in Kathmandu. The three operatory clinic, complete with dormitories and kitchen, would allow Western dentists an opportunity to spend a week in Kathmandu. They would volunteer their dental services, pay rent for lodging, get a donor receipt for their good work, and have an opportunity to venture into the exciting countryside of Nepal for a trek, climb, or jungle adventure. The vision: the lodging fee would pay the rent for the clinic while the true winners would be the desperately poor of Nepal struggling with the ravages of dental decay, pain and infection.

Adding A-dec Expertise
The next part of the adventure was when the SmileHigh/SmileHigh North America team flew to Washington D.C. to attend the American Dental Association (ADA) annual meeting. There they met with the ADA Foundation and another serendipitous encounter occurred, this time with Mariah Kraner, PhD, Professional Relations Manager of the A-dec Foundation.

Dr. Phillips was very familiar with A-dec Dental Manufacturing of Newberg, OR as he selected A-dec equipment for his new 17 operatory dental center in Silverdale, WA. Meanwhile, Dr. Haszard had sketched out an architectural plan for the three operatory dental facility envisioned as the SmileHigh Kathmandu Dental Center. Dr. Kraner was very interested in the SmileHigh Kathmandu project for a variety of reasons: SmileHigh had operated in Nepal for a decade; the Kathmandu clinic would be utilized full-time and managed by a Nepali dentist; it would provide free dental services from a Western volunteer dentist; and it would be nearly self-supporting due to the lodge fees charged to guest dentists.

All the threads of connection were coming together. Dr. Phillips spent most of January 2017 in Nepal visiting the Khumbu villages of Khumjung and Phortse, home of the Khumbu Climbing Center. While there, he provided treatment to needy villagers. Newly graduated from dental school in the Philippines, Dr. Ngima Mendewa Sherpa plans on taking the Nepal dental boards this spring. She is delighted about the possibility of managing the SmileHigh Kathmandu Dental Center. Dr. Phillips and his pro bono lawyer friend, Brian Lawler, are busy completing the SmileHigh North America 501(c)3 non-profit application. Dr. Phillips plans to spend a month in Nepal this autumn, working in the Khumbu and finalizing plans for the SmileHigh Kathmandu Dental Center.

Where Luck and Purpose Collide
Dr. Phillips feels blessed by the serendipitous events that have occurred in his life journey, providing adventure, good health, and purpose. His message to other dentists interested in sharing their skills is “stay healthy and be an asset!”

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