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Zambia in his heart
Independence, MO — Dr. Jim Elias is the doctor without pain.
At least he is to the thousands of Zambians to whom he has given free dental care.
“They called me the doctor without pain because we would numb them before we went to work on them,” Elias said.
So, how did he end up with thousands of Zambians in his dental chair? In a dental chair, of course.
It all began in 1998 when he was chatting with a patient, Charlotte Franklin, as he worked on her teeth for eight hours. You can cover a lot of subjects in eight hours, and somehow it came out that she did missionary trips with International Children’s Missionary Enterprise around the world.
“Hey, you want to go to Africa with me?” she asked.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “When are you going?”
“August,” she said.
“I have a week in August off,” he said.
“Well, you’re going to need at least two weeks,” she said.
He found eight years.
Charlotte and her husband, Larry, run ICME and initially wanted Elias to preach at the two-week Bible retreat in Zambia for around 13,000 people at the 100-year-old Kafulafuta Mission. Elias brought along his dental equipment, thinking he could help a few people.
“I knew I was going to do some (dental work) but I had no idea for the magnitiude it would entail,” he said. “I worked from sunup to sundown for 11 of the 14 days I was gone, doing nothing but taking out teeth.”
He was supplied with an assistant, Cethas Makasa, a young man just out of an EMT-type training program who was running the village clinic by himself. Elias taught him the anatomy of the mouth, telling him where nerves ran, how anesthesia worked, how to elevate tissue, loosen and elevate teeth and do extractions.
Together they ran into a lot of problems other than teeth. One person had 30 ringworms, another had spiders in his ears and one man had a hatchet in his head. There was a fair share of dental problems, too. Most revolved around abcessed teeth.
“You can’t imagine how many people have abscess teeth and have been sick,” he said. “You ask them, ‘How long has this been hurting?’ Here it’s two to three weeks; there it’s two to three years.”
They set up shop in unconventional locations including a 30-by-30-foot classroom and a pastor’s office using chairs with connective desks as dentist’s chairs. They hung sheets as walls and had their own pharmacy.
“Obstacle by obstacle was followed by a miracle. There’s no insurance, no charts, no lawyers,” Elias said. “It’s ‘how can we help you? What’s hurting, and how can we help?’ There’s no hidden agenda, just helping and serving God.”
Elias taught anyone who would learn – such as firefighters and teachers – how to remove abcessed teeth, ensuring that when he left the tribe could take care of their teeth.
“Those people help other people and they help others,” he said. “I left (Makasa) some of my tools and that probably was the greatest feeling I had: that I didn’t just go there for two weeks and take out teeth. It’s just a drop in the bucket. I left some skill and knowledge to continue on.”
Elias returned to the states a changed man.
“When I got back, my kids hated me because I started getting rid of things we didn’t need and started focusing on the more natural things,” he said.
Elias couldn’t stay away from Africa for too long, a few years later he found himself back in Zambia. Why?
“I think just realizing the needs that these people had. I think too as my love for God and my love for mankind grew, and I was asked by another church, the Kansas City Baptist Temple I (went back). And I did, and I did and I did. I like going to Africa because people appreciate it more, and I hope it can happen here,” he said. “You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. It’s just a feeling of love and sincerity, and I want it to happen here. The people are so happy, so content with so little. There’s 4,000 kids, and none of them say ‘I’m bored.’ The only kids I see crying in Africa are in pain.”
Over eight years, Elias has helped about 12,000 Zambians. In a sort of George Bailey way, he never thought he would touch so many people’s lives. In fact, he almost never became a dentist.
Elias graduated from UMKC with a degree in economics and started working at First Federal Savings and Loan. One day, at age 23, when talking to a senior vice president, Carl Liecktieg, about how he always wanted to be a dentist, he had an epiphany.
“You want to wonder about that the rest of your life?” Liecktieg asked.
“You know, no,” Elias answered.
For the next few years he dedicated himself to dentistry and ended up graduating from the UMKC Dental School with honors.
“I studied out of fear,” he said.
He’s been a dentist in Independence for 31 years. He owns and practices at the Center of Dental Excellence with Dr. Kirk Opdahl in Independence. He lives in Lake Winnebago with his wife, Sharon, and has four children: Kimberly, 39, Shannon, 33, Jarrod, 30, and Libby, 27, and three grandsons.
“God’s blessed me. I don’t have a big house, but it’s paid for. The purpose of what I do is to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” he said. “I’m a people person. I want to make a difference in people’s lives, I do it because God gave me that gift. I do it for God’s glory and because I love what I do, I make smiles. The gift of relieving someone’s pain is priceless.”
Elias wanted others to be able to create smiles in Zambia too, so last year he contacted UMKC to see if there were any students interested in going to Zambia with him. Eight students, three medical and five dental, whose medical mission to Nicaragua fell through, were extremely interested.
The only problem was that the trip cost $3,500 each and the students each only had $1,000. Elias decided he would pay the difference and sold his Ford Thunderbird and enlisted others to donate to pay for the trip. He says it was worth the sacrifice.
“Their education took a quantum leap. I prayed two years ago for God to give me somebody who can use this opportunity and eliminate pain, and that’s when I thought if I ever got one or two (students) it would be great and ironically I got eight.
“Eight in the Bible is the number for new beginnings,” Elias said. “They won out because the students early in their career, for them to learn the value of learning to help other people ... and then take all that skill, wisdom and knowledge over here, and they’re helping people now.
“It’s a win-win situation. It’s an incredible concept when you grasp it because every step of the way people are benefiting. It’s prettty awesome.”
Bringing it home
After all his work in Africa, Elias is bringing his dentistry mission a little closer to home. He’s joining up with the Life Changers Conference, a Christian conference in Bartle Hall in Kansas City this week, with 30,000 expected to attend. His contribution to the conference is providing free dental care to attendees. He has 10 dental chairs and 16 or17 dentists, and is excited to give dental care to people who couldn’t afford to get it done otherwise.
“We’re taking care of their physical needs. The idea is to try to offer medical support to the spiritual help. This economy is such that people can’t afford to get dental care. If they need it, we can provide it,” he said. “Our main objective is to try to eliminate as much pain as possible and educate people to prevent it from happening again. Kind of like putting out a fire, I can teach a room of 10,000 people whereas I could only operate on one person.”
Elias has already helped thousands of people in Africa and in the states, but he can say his service to others has helped him the most.
“I don’t need as much to make me happy. It’s relationships with people that make me happy,” he said. “Simplicity makes me happy. I try to live in the now, enjoy who you are, enjoy the moment. The best thing I’ve done is to help others know they’re loved.”
The make shift clinic in a classroom at the Kafulafuta Mission in Northern Zambia where the group performed their work.