Charlotte dentist and West Rowan grad feels need in Kenya

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

By Ophelia Davis Johnson

Special to The Salisbury Post

Before dawn, people lined up dozens deep at the tin-roofed schoolhouse hoping to see a doctor or a dentist for the first time in Kenya, a country in eastern Africa.

Inside, the discomfort of rotting teeth and bleeding gums eventually brought them to the gentle hands of Dr. Nikki E. Jones, who’d set up her makeshift dental station in a sticky, hot room with a dirt floor and paneless windows. There, her patients sat at a table, opened their mouths and “leaned their heads back” against the wall.

“We were limited to extractions because there was no electricity,” she said. Add to that no running water, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, x-ray equipment or reclining dental chair. At her sterilization station, she had “some disinfectant sprays, a pressure pot, a bucket of water and a hot plate fueled by a gas tank.”

But few patients fidgeted, cried or demanded pain medication. Once a tooth — or three — was pulled, most patients simply told her “asante sana,” which means “thank you very much” in Swahili. Those few words were enough for Jones, who traveled to Kenya in September on a medical mission that has changed the way she looks at her medicine — and her mission in life.

“It was a prayerful journey,” she said. “The trip opened my eyes to the need for medical care in rural areas of Africa. People pressed their way there, on bicycles, on foot. Everyone was so gracious. It’s a feeling I’d never felt before.”

Jones, a Cleveland native and third generation dentist who practices in Charlotte, plans to return to Kenya in August for a second mission. For years, she’d considered mission work, but really didn’t have an opportunity until about a year ago when she saw a blurb in the Sunday bulletin at University Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.

Without hesitation, she and two others from University Park joined a medical mission trip sponsored by Shalom Outreach, Inc. in Dale City, Va. They linked up with other nurses, doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, pharmacists and ministers who traveled to Nairobi. There, Jones’ 15-member team met about 40 Kenyan physicians and set up the clinic at a primary school in rural Meru, which is located about four hours from Nairobi.

“The team treated about 4,000 people over two days,” she said, adding that they worked “from sunup to sundown.”

Each night, the team traveled back over dusty roads to a White Star Hotel in Makutano near the town of Meru. There, they had televisions, telephones and hot showers. She used the hotel phone to call her mother, Bernice Jones in Cleveland, to provide regular updates about the trip.

At first, “I felt overwhelmed with sadness,” she said. “The need is so great and the help is not there.”

Jones’ group prepped for the trip for a year, she said, and focused on details. Brush with bottled water, dress coolly, pack lots of mosquito repellent (with 100 percent Deet), get updates on shots to ward off potential problems such as yellow fever, typhoid and hepatitis A and B. Women on the mission, she said, were even asked to pack dresses instead of pants, a custom still observed in many rural areas of Kenya.

“A woman in pants is not respected in many traditional villages,” said Jones, the only dentist on the trip.

Kenya is bordered by Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the east, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, and Sudan to the northwest, with the Indian Ocean running along the southeast border. It’s is the world’s 47th largest country and is comparable in size to the state of Texas.

Jones, a graduate of West Rowan High School, has been practicing dentistry for about five years in a group practice in West Charlotte with Dr. Spurgeon W. Webber, Jr.

Since high school, she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, the late Dr. Lee Clarence Jones and her father, the late Clinton M. Jones, Sr., who practiced local dentistry until his death in 1989.

After graduating from North Carolina Central University in 1996, she went to the University of Detroit-Mercy Dental School and received the Doctor of Dental Surgery in 2001. She missed a few opportunities to join medical mission in school, she said, but she was determined to find one.

“I love travel and I love helping people,” said Jones, who paid about $3,000 of her own money for the trip.

She rented instruments from the Christian Dental Society and supplies were donated from dental companies and her own purchases. “I enjoy what I do here, but I can go at least once a year to reach out to people who have no options.”

She left Kenya was sore muscles from long hours and some respiratory problems caused by traveling on dusty roads, but she also brought images of many of the people she met.

One patient was a 12-year-old girl who wore a “beautiful white dress with ruffles around the neck.”

“She had two teeth completely decayed and non-restorable,” Jones said. “She also had dental crowding that caused her teeth to shift severely.”

The girl was scared, but “my dental assistant was caressing her forehead and praying over her as I performed the procedure. The girl calmed down and soon left to play with the other kids outside.”

The hardest part of the medical mission, she said, was not the work, the searing heat or the lack of supplies. It was the lack of hands.

“To continue these missions successfully, more financial support is needed to provide medications and supplies,” she said. Her team would eventually like to set up a clinic in rural areas to provide a facility to help Kenyan doctors treat patients on a regular basis, she said.

That hope, she said, lingered in her mind as the team packed up on the last day. As she looked outside the room, she knew she’d have to return.

“There were still 17 people left in my line,” Jones said with a sigh. “It was heartbreaking.”

In August, she’s hoping those patients will be back in her line.

Contact Ophelia Davis Johnson at 704-797-4280 or