Careers,  Education

Hong Kong missionary dentist treats broken jaws and broken lives in Papua New Guinea

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High-flier Sheena Li, who grew up in city’s North Point neighbourhood before family moved to Canada, shuns wealth and prestige to make a difference among the world’s most needy communities

Goofing off My parents met at Hong Kong University. My father worked in the Education Bureau and my mum was a social worker. I was born in 1979. We lived in North Point and my older brother and I went to St Paul’s Co-educational College, in Mid-Levels. We were below-average students – we goofed off half the time. I think that’s part of the reason my parents decided to emigrate to Toronto when I was 11 – they thought there would be better opportunities for my brother and I, and there was also uncertainty over the future in Hong Kong.

“If we’d stayed in Hong Kong, I don’t think my brother and I would have got the grades to go to university, but in Canada we thrived”
O Canada! Canada was a huge change. The hardest part was not being able to speak English. It was a really great move and it changed the course of our lives. In the early 1980s, teachers at good schools in Hong Kong invested more in the kids who were doing well, but those falling behind didn’t get the attention they needed. If we’d stayed in Hong Kong, I don’t think my brother and I would have got the grades to go to university, but in Canada we thrived.
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Bible studies I was determined to learn English so I could make friends. I read a lot of books and I read the Bible, which is how I became a Christian. My auntie was involved with the church and that’s how we found a community and a life in Toronto. My brother and I got involved with a youth group, and when I was 18, I did my first trip with them.

We went to Mexico to help at an orphanage and also introduce stories from the Bible. I got to see life in a part of the world that’s very impoverished. It made a big impression on me. I was a teenager and very idealistic, I wanted to do good. I’ve ended up doing this as my career, but I’m not as naive as I was. Seeing real tragedy, violence and suffering, I realised it’s not as romantic as I used to think.

Li in Papua New Guinea. Picture: Sheena Li

Dental decisionMy brother wanted to do something in aerospace – he was a big fan of Top Gun – and became an aeronautical engineer. I got straight As and went on to do a four-year undergraduate degree in life sciences. After university, I took a gap year and was a bit lost. I worked in a hospital doing research. My Sunday school teacher was a dental surgeon in a psychiatric centre and I asked if I could shadow him. That made a big impression on me and I decided I wanted to be a dentist, but not in private practice – I wanted to reach out to people who were vulnerable and needy.

“I may not drive a Ferrari, I don’t live like a doctor, but we’re very content with what we’re doing and get so much in return”

Bullet in the head In 2003, I went to dental school in Pennsylvania (in the United States) for four years. Then I did a residency, training in a hospital for a year. Then, in 2008, I went to Kenya for a year, with Africa Inland Mission, as a volunteer at Kijabe Hospital. A missionary dentist and a general surgeon who dealt with a lot of trauma to the face and the mouth mentored me. The people there were coming from war-torn Sudan and Somalia.

There was one man we treated who’d had a bullet lodged in his jaw for 18 years – it had been left untreated and so it was infected. I learned a lot. While I was there, I heard about a Christian relief organisation called Samaritan’s Purse; they meet spiritual and physical needs in places that are hit by war or have experienced natural disasters.

Li in Kudjip dental clinic, one of the best equipped clinics in Papua New Guinea. Picture: Sheena Li

A sense of communityI returned to Toronto and worked two jobs to pay off my student debt. I worked in private practice and also joined a government programme with Health Canada that flew me to places in the Canadian Arctic to do dentistry for remote groups. I wanted to do a public-health fellowship, and went to Hawaii for 18 months for that.

While studying at the school, I also worked in a community clinic. After that, I didn’t want to go back to Toronto and open a practice in a shopping mall. You ask your patient to open their mouth for five minutes and you charge them US$200. That doesn’t mean anything to me, so I applied for Samaritan’s Purse.

Li with the congregation of a village church in Papua New Guinea. Picture: Sheena Li

Pulling teeth in Papua New Guinea I wanted to go to Africa and was set for Liberia in the summer of 2014, but then Ebola happened and all staff were evacuated. Instead, I went to Papua New Guinea. I arrived at the mission hospital in 2015 to help start the dental unit. It was a two-year posting. I saw a lot of broken jaws from tribal fights – injuries from machetes and rocks. The highlands are very remote – there are no roads and you can only get there by flying. Some groups there were only discovered in 1933. We treated people and shared God’s love with them regardless of whether or not they choose to believe.

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Tribal fights and domestic violence Many cases I treated resulted from tribal fights and domestic violence against women. In PNG, a husband sometimes takes a second or third wife and it can lead to fights. We had one case where the man took a third wife and told his first wife to go and buy rice. She wasn’t happy so he broke her jaw. Every week, we saw broken jaws. They just pick up a rock and smash up their spouse. I also saw a lot of chronic infections: teeth abysses where the tooth has been rotting and the bone becomes infected and it can drain into their eye and the face can become swollen. People can die from a rotten tooth if they can’t get to us in time.

Li (Left) with visiting dental surgeon Dr Sabrina Butler, operating on a pregnant woman who is a victim of domestic abuse. Picture: Sheena Li

Flying doctor I’m going to stay in PNG for a while. I’m based in Goroka,with a group called Ethnos360. I’m still with Samaritan’s Purse, but Ethnos360 has aviation, so they can fly me to the remote tribes. You have to go with people who the chief knows, otherwise it’s not safe. You can’t just go in as someone they don’t know – they’ll feel threatened. Whenever you go out, you are never alone as a girl. A lot of my friends are local people and they watch out for me. People have lice and typhoid and TB (tuberculosis) and cholera – I’ve had all my vaccinations, but there are still risks.

Perks of the job Being a nine-to-five dentist didn’t suit me. What I’m doing now is a better fit. I see people with broken teeth, broken mouths, broken jaws, broken lives.

Samaritan’s Purse assisted with a stipend for the first two years and now I’m not paid for my work – my church supports me. I don’t make an income, but it assists with day-to-day living. But we live in abundance – I don’t think we lack. I may not drive a Ferrari, I don’t live like a doctor, but we’re very content with what we’re doing and get so much in return.