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A molar-powered mission for Woodbury native

David Ugai, a dentist and 2002 Woodbury High School graduate, spent 10 months between 2012-13 performing free dental care in Guinea. Staff photo by Mike Longaecker

Sore mouths for blocks.

That's what awaited David Ugai every morning for much of the last year - impoverished residents from the west African country of Guinea lined up in the streets to receive free dental care.

Ugai, a Woodbury native, took the job straight out of dental school, bypassing lucrative job possibilities to live with three other people in a cramped cabin aboard a ship docked in Guinea, where he worked with an organization that provided free dentistry to the country's residents in need.

Ugai admitted it was a unique way to cut his teeth in the profession, but said he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"It feels to me like what I should be doing," the 2002 Woodbury High School graduate said, just weeks after returning from Guinea. "Until God points me in another direction, I think I'll be doing this for a while."

Ugai said he entered the University of Minnesota's dentistry school with the goal of entering the profession to help the less fortunate.

So after graduating in May 2012, he left for Texas, where he received a primer in missionary work in advance of his service mission to Guinea through the organization Mercy Ships. From there, it was on to Ghana, where the program initiated him into third-world conditions.

After getting acclimated to life in Africa, Ugai sailed in August 2012 to Guinea, where the ship docked outside the capitol city of Conakry.

There, Ugai began his work as a member of a four-person team dedicated to performing free dental care to Guineans. The need was strong in Guinea, he said, where there are about 50 practicing dentists in the country of 10 million people.

"They don't have the means" for dental care, he said, "or they don't know how to take care of their teeth."

The work was steady and busy with patients suffering from maladies ranging from simple cavities to advanced mouth diseases, Ugai said.

The job wasn't quite pulling teeth - it was exactly that. Tooth extraction was a procedure Ugai and the other dentists performed on a regular basis. Ugai said tooth extraction was the most common task he performed in Guinea, adding that he removed up to 20 teeth from one person's mouth.

"It's a quick learning curve when you're taking out a lot of teeth every day," he said.

Ugai estimated that his four-person team of dentists saw up to 100 patients a day. All told, the team completed 45,168 dental procedures and encountered 12,209 patients during the 10-month stay in Guinea.

The experience was a humbling one, Ugai said - but one that was instructive as he goes in search of a career helping those in need.

"It showed me how to expand on how to help people in these types of areas," he said.

Ugai is currently enrolled in a master's in public health program through Johns Hopkins University.

The 29-year-old said he hopes to one day lead programs that provide third-world communities with the equipment, facilities and know-how to develop their own health care system.

Though his family has roots in missionary work, it wasn't until his junior high-school years that he awakened to the concept of helping others. He credited Woodbury High School football coach Andy Hill - who coached Ugai as an eighth-grader - as a major influence. Ugai said Hill took the team to homeless shelters, where players volunteered, "showing us at a young age that there are people in need."

Hill and Ugai remain in contact.

"I think that in a very self-serving world, it's pretty unique to see somebody spend a year in their young adult life serving others," Hill said.

Ugai will continue those efforts, possibly beginning with a stay in Haiti. He left this week for Haiti to inspect a program he plans to work with there as he works simultaneously on his advanced public health degree.

If the program is a good fit, Ugai said he expects to spend a longer duration there than he did in Guinea.

"I try to do as much as I can," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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