Local dentist offers smiles and supplies to refugees

By Brandon Gustafson | Oct 18, 2017
Courtesy of: Dr. Nhi Pham Dr. Nhi Pham working on a young boy’s mouth with the assistance of two other refugees. Pham was the only dentist to make the mission trip for Medical Relief International.

When it comes to smiles, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more knowledgeable than Mukilteo’s own Dr. Nhi Pham.

Pham, who owns and runs the Mukilteo Dental Center, is tasked with making sure her patients’ smiles are in the best shape they can be.

When Pham is not helping her clients, she is often helping the less fortunate. Recently, the Washington State Dental Association awarded Pham their “Citizen of the Year” award for her incredible volunteer work.

“I am humbled by the Citizen of the Year Award from the Washington State Dental Association since I am shy to receive any award or recognition,” Pham said.

Just recently, Pham, along with others through Medical Relief International, returned from a mission trip to Lesvos, Greece, a small island in the northern Aegean Sea, which has become home to thousands of refugees over the past few years.

“We were in Greece for a total of 12 days,” Pham said. “We were on the island itself for about a week. We had to take an 11-hour ferry ride from Athens to get to this remote island.”

Pham could relate to those she helped in Greece, as she too was a refugee as a 2-year-old child from Vietnam with her family in search of a better life in America.

“You know, with my story, we drifted at sea for seven days, and to these people, we understand that the perspective is that you risk your own life because you know that you’re not safe in your own home or own homeland,” Pham said. “Your country has forgotten about you, and you have to risk everything.”

After successfully immigrating to America, her family ended up in Snohomish County where she would end up staying to this day. She would attend Seattle University and the University of Washington studying dentistry, now operating her own clinic here in Mukilteo.

Through Pham’s patients and co-workers, she is able to make trips like the one to Greece, as well as get supplies to people who really need them.

“I am thankful for the opportunity to have a platform to spread awareness to the causes, charities, and outreach organizations that are so close to my heart,” she said.

Since there were nine people making the trip, they were able to bring 18 tubs of equipment and supplies. When they realized there was more room for things to fill four more of those tubs, Pham issued a “shout-out” from her dental center.

“All I did was ask for shoes,” Pham said. “A lot of my mission trips to Haiti and Ecuador, the kids were without shoes, and without them, they can’t walk or play. Plus, kids tend to outgrow shoes.”

That call for shoes was made less than a week before she left for Greece. Before you knew it, there were shoes, clothes, socks, toys and much more filling her office.

People from Mukilteo all the way down to Federal Way brought supplies to her office, and one truckload and five carloads later, they had the remaining four tubs filled up, and Pham was ready to go to Greece.

Pham was the only dentist who made the trip. She said the camp there is overflowing with people, and that the conditions are bad.

“The cold season is coming in, and this last winter, they actually experienced snow for the first time in about 20 years,” Pham said. “The camp was only meant for about 1,000 people, but right now there’s close to 5,000 people and about 600 more arrived that week.”

While there, Pham said she would help treat various refugees, physically and emotionally, and one of the experiences that really stood out was her treatment of a 9-year-old boy.

“I think I extracted five of his teeth,” Pham said. “You can only imagine, it was not just treating their dental pain, but giving compassion and listening to their stories.”

Some of those stories included gunshots, having no formal education, walking through entire countries to get to Greece, and even the experience of being a refugee for their entire lives.

Pham believes that her experience of being a refugee as a young girl helped her connect with some of the people she was helping. That rang especially true with the younger girls in the camp.

“The young girls, allowing them to know, ‘Hey, you know I have a past as a refugee, too’ and they'd look at me and double take, you know?” Pham said. “Two young girls expressed that they want to be dentists when they grow up, so that was really inspiring for sure.”

Pham said that seeing the “life jacket graveyard” which is was a pile of thousands of life jackets from these fleeing refugees was one of the more humbling experiences in Lesvos.

Pham started going on these longer mission trips when her first daughter “had just finished her potty training.” She hopes that someday her daughters can come along to see how she is able to help those who truly need it.

“I come back a better wife and a better person overall, and my family really cheers me on … sometimes as volunteers, we get more out of the service than those we served.”

One thing Pham repeated was, “You don’t need to be a dentist to volunteer. There are so many ways you can help others.”

Her biggest takeaway, in large part due to her experience being a child refugee, as well as being a mother, was the impact on the children that she helped serve in Lesvos.

“My message to the refugee children I cared for at the refugee camp in Lesvos; as a refugee myself, an immigrant, a female, and as a person of color, if you have faith and hope in your heart, all things are possible.”



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