February in the Clinic

The clinic is humming along like a well-oiled machine. Semisi Finau has everything working (keep your fingers crossed, for our poor, tired equipment) and we are enjoying the generosity of Midwestern University School of Dentistry, as well as of Randy Gardner, Matt Coplin, and Rick Ballard, our volunteers who were here in October, December, and January, and Courtney Fisher, who will be here until April. We are using electric handpieces, have high intensity curing lights, and use the Isolite on every patient. Every time I utilize a dental material, I think of them.


We still see patients who break our hearts. It is particularly distressing to see students in Form 6 or 7 who have been at Liahona for 3 or 4 years, who have never been to the clinic. But, we have established a good relationship with the administration, and they are sending students to the clinic every day, 2 or 3 at a time.


With the Isolite system that Matt brought, we can do two quadrants of restorative procedures in one visit. This means we can do 10 or 12 restorations, on one side of the mouth / upper and lower teeth, in one visit. We can finish the treatment on a student in two visits. We are constantly adding to our “Wall of Fame,” that lists the students who have completed treatment.


It may seem hard to believe, but most of our patients actually like coming to the clinic. Many have never been to the dentist and it’s strange to treat a patient who has no pre-conceived ideas about how the appointment should go. This means that they have no idea what to expect from the administration of anesthetic. (We do a lot of nose wiggling and ear pulling, and a lot of patients find this very amusing). They also don’t know how to spit (gets messy sometimes), or tap their teeth together. But they also have a VERY high tolerance for pain, and after doing a dozen restorations, they rarely have post operative discomfort (that they tell us about). They also frequently come back in for their second visit a day or two later. We rarely give them analgesics, and almost never give antibiotics.


For you dental types out there, I use septocaine almost exclusively. This means I can adminsiter anesthetic, and begin preparing a tooth immediately thereafter. Generally, we seat a patient in the chair, and are beginning treatment within a couple of minutes. We don’t waste any time. If we don’t run into problems, we can do ten restorations in an hour. But I do use a lot of sedative base material, because most of their cavities are very deep. We go to great lengths to avoid pulpal exposures, but even teeth that have had very large lesions seem to respond well (not many flaring up and needing root canal treatment). I should write a book on Tongan tooth anatomy. Tongans have 1) large mouths – plenty of room for third molars, 2) deep pits and fissures, 3) intact smooth surfaces (no decay between the teeth, in general), and 4) a high tolerance for pain. They are uncomplaining, and very rarely present with behavioral management issues. (I did have one patient who was needle-phobic, but we got past that quite easily with nose and ear wiggling).


It’s nice to walk through the Liahona campus and see students who are patients in the clinic. They always call out hello (or malo e lelei – but it is an English speaking campus).


It reminds me of when I practiced dentistry in Switzerland, and the little children in the alpine villages would greet me the same way. (Except they would say: “Oh, le piquer! Ca fait mal!).


I’m not sure I have a favorite type of patient, but I do like to ask where the students are from, and what their background is. Many are from very small islands in the South Pacific, where there is no opportunity for oral health care (or medical care, for that matter). I really admire the students from P.N.G. who have made it 1,500 miles to Liahona to go to school for 5 years, away from their families and culture. Many are on scholarships, and after their missions would like to go to B.Y.U. Hawaii.


All of the students have bright eyes, and are alert, and an the girls are vivacious. They have a sweetness about them that is so refreshing. They all love to sing, and it’s very common to hear them day and night, singing in small groups.

F.Y.I. In February we placed 899 composites (fillings), and did 164 extractions. So we are tipping the scales in favor of saving teeth. (It was about even when we first got here).

We are also seeing a lot more students, pre-missionaries, and missionaries (which makes the Presiding Bishopric Office happy). The students returned to Liahona at the end of January, which explains why 1) we didn’t see many in January, and 2) why we saw so many in February.



Meals on Wheels

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The Va’enukus are senior missionaries who live three doors down from us. Technically, they are office missionaries, who assist President Tuione, but practically they are humanitarian missionaries who serve the members all over the island.

Sister Va’enuku is a great cook, and with the assistance that has been so generously provided by many of you, her small apartment is filled to the brim with food. She spends hours and hours cooking, and then with her husband delivering food to members and non-members alike.

They were the ones who organized our Christmas caroling, and now they have really stepped up to the plate, providing assistance to those whose lives have been affected by Cyclone Gita.

This evening, when I went over to their home to give them another 500 pa’anga (that had all been donated to Jan’s Venmo account), they had just gotten home (at 9:30 p.m.).

Sister Va’enuku was preparing a small meal for herself and her husband. They had not eaten all day because they had been so busy delivering meals.

They know all the missionaries, and often enlist them to help them reach out to people that only the missionaries know are in real need.

Every pa’anga that has been donated for Gita relief has gone to purchasing basic foodstuffs.

Sister Va’enuku mainly cooks from scratch, so her meals are both nutritious and delicious.

The Va’enukus have used some of the money to purchase basic ingredients for families that have fuel or electricity. Most do not, yet.

I have been over to their house three times to deliver the cash donations that have been pouring in from America. The Va’enukus have been sure to let everyone whom they have been serving that the food was made possible by people in America who don’t even know exactly where Tonga is on the map, but who felt in their hearts that they needed to reach out and help.

Every one has expressed their love and their thanks. (Malo aupito!  and  Ofa atu!)

Isn’t it wonderful that even if you are 6,000 miles away, when you sense there is a need, you can almost instantly reach out and help, and know that your contributions will take shape through the hands of helping hands of senior couples like the Va’enukis, whose only desire is to serve their brothers and sisters in any way they can. You have helped to make that possible!




The Niuas

We’ve seen patients in the clinic from all over the South Pacific, but notably the three island groups of Tonga, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands, one or two from New Caledonia, and a lot from New Zealand and Australia.


Today, in the clinic, we saw our first patient from the Niuas, the northernmost island group of Tonga. Today, the population of the three islands that make up the Niuas is about 1,200. The land area is 71 square km, which is less than the city of Spokane. Our patient, Lomalito, grew up on the Niuas. When she was a girl, there were about 200 people living on her island. There were no stores, and everyone lived off the sea, their gardens, and what grew in the bush. They drank rainwater that they stored in cisterns. Even today, there are no ATMs on the Niuas.


She had very nice teeth – no sugar growing up. She’s since moved to Vava’u, and told us that most of the young people in the Niuas leave the island to seek opportunities elsewhere, as she did.

Amenaki (the dental director at Vaiola Hospital in Nuku’alofa) tells me that there is a hospital clinic in the Niuas, and he has encouraged us to go there. There are only a few members in the Niuas, though, (3 branches of the church) and the air service is sketchy. Royal Tonga Airlines flies once a week (on an intermittent schedule). We could get stuck there indefinitely. Maybe I’ll send one of our volunteers, and see how it works out. (I wonder if they read this blog?)

Saturday and Sunday in Eua

This is our fale on Eua. We just heard that Eua was spared the brunt of the cyclone, and the resort survived!

The coast line in front of the resort. During whale season, we were told you can see whales from the porch of the fale!

Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning were beautiful. We walked up and down the beach before going to church at 10 a.m..

We left the resort with the manager about noon, on Saturday, and went to the ferry terminal to wait for our car to come in. (We had dropped off the car in Nuku’alofa at the ferry terminal on Friday evening). While we were waiting, we had lunch at the Ovava Tree Resort. The resort was closed but the owner made us lunch, anyway.

After retrieving our car, we headed off on the main road out of town. (There actually is just ONE road out of town, so that sort of makes it “the main road,” I suppose.)

The road quickly deteriorates, and turns into a 4WD track. The weather looked threatening, so we turned around before reaching the lookout that was our intended destination. We also did not see ANYONE else, and that was a little disturbing.

Back in town we stocked up on vegetables, and went to one of the two “markets” on the island. Both markets are VERY basic. We understand that most people on Eua live off the land and the sea.

Saturday evening, President Ma’u and his family came over to our fale. There are 6 church units on the island – about 1300 members, I believe. They brought us a fan from the stake center because it was VERY hot and humid.

On Sunday, we went to church and met the Ma’u family there. His sister sat with us and translated – it was a Tongan speaking ward (and stake).

Ward members on Eua.

ChurchThere is a Middle School adjacent to the Stake Center. We were hoping to be able to see many of the students from the school, since it is just down the road from the hospital and dental clinic. But Gita ruined our plans.


In case anyone was wondering, we did go to Eua just before the cyclone. (We left on Saturday morning, heard about the cyclone on Sunday afternoon, and returned to Tongatapu on Monday morning).

There are 12 missionaries, I believe, serving on Eua. There is one stake. When the missionaries go, they usually take the boat. We flew (and sent our car on the ferry). The ferry crosses the Tonga Trench between the two islands and it can get pretty rough.


We leave Tongatapu for the Outer Islands from the domestic terminal. This plane is sitting next to the terminal. (No doubt designed to instill confidence in passengers waiting for their flight.)

Actually, this was our plane. Each row of seats has its own personal door.

After getting comfortably settled in, we got pre-flight instructions from the pilot.

Leaving Tongatapu on the 7 minute flight to Eua. The landing gear is fixed in place. No time to put it up and down, anyway.

We kept pretty close tabs on the pilot, checking the gauges ourselves to make sure everything was working properly. The shoreline of Eua on our approach to the landing strip.

There is only one town on Eua. Exiting the aircraft, we didn’t need to wait for those passengers in front of us to disembark first.

The terminal in Eua is not very large. There was one person working at the terminal. Part of her responsibilities were to jump in a pickup truck and drive up and down the runway before the plane came, to make sure there were no stray pigs that might get in the way.

There are three “resorts” on the island. They are mainly there to accommodate the tourists during whale season (July – September). We stayed at the “Deep Resort,” and were the only guests.



Teach a Man to Fish…..


Loueni Huni is  65 years old. He lives on Tongatapu, and is retired. He and his wife served a mission in 2015 – 2017, and now they are preparing to turn in their papers again. That’s not too unusual – missions are highly regarded in Tonga, and many senior couples serve.


But Loueni is special. When he was 9 years old, his father taught him to spear fish. And he has been doing it ever since. But for the past 20 years or so, he has been going out, alone, at night, beyond the reef, to spearfish. Dressed in his swim suit, he wears a mask, snorkel, and swim fins. And he takes a simple Hawaiian sling. And a stringer to hold the fish he has speared.


His wife, Nunie, stays in the truck while he is in the water. And she prays for him. Every night. Until he returns about 8 hours later, at around 4 a.m.. He can tell when the dawn is about to break.

He knows there are sharks in the water. He likes going to Makeke. I have been there. It is well-known for sharks. People are discouraged from swimming at Makeke. But he goes, two or three nights ever week, at about 8 p.m. and makes his way over the rocks, out through the surf, and over the reef.

He says the sharks know him, and they leave him alone. Even when he has up to 200 fish on his stringer. If they get too close, he says he pulls the line in and holds the fish close to him, until the sharks leave.


(They were SO excited to be getting their paperwork done for their next mission).

He says he has never speared a shark, and they know he is not a threat to them. Or food to him. There is plenty of blood in the water, to attract predators. Big predators cruise over the coral reef at night, looking for food. Loueni uses a light, to attract the fish. (The sharks get curious about the light, as well).

Maybe the best thing about this story is what he does with the fish. He and his wife bag them in plastic, and during the day they visit the poor and distribute the fish among them. They have been doing this for twenty years. (It was difficult to get Loueni to tell me about what he does, because like most Tongans, he is very humble, and self-effacing. I think he was embarrassed to tell me his story, but I am Palangi, so I persisted.)

Sometimes the people they give the fish to, will ask him how they can have fish all the time. He tells them to meet him at the beach. Then, he teaches them to spearfish. Nunie says that when he teaches them, they will have fish to eat for the rest of their lives. (I asked her about Brigham Young’s famous remark about teaching a man to fish. She had never heard of it). They just quietly live the principle.


(Affixing the all-important “stamp” to their papers.)

We were happy to sign their papers for their next mission. By the way, during their last mission, which was in Tonga, he spearfished three times a week, and continued their custom of giving the fish to the poor. I suspect that if they serve near the ocean, he will continue the practice. (If you were wondering, the last time around, his mission president gave him permission to do so.)


(Those of you who have a missionary in Tonga know how important the stamp is.)

By the way…..  Inspiring examples of service such as this can be found all over Tonga.*


(Ready with their papers!)

The Tongan Saints are stellar examples of the scripture that reads: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand,Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me to drink. I was a stranger and ye took me in. Naked, and ye clothed me. I was sick, and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came into me.”  (Matthew 25: 34-36).


*     But I think it would be hard to top the story of Loueni Huni and his wife Nunie.


G.P.S. (Government Public School) in Ha’ateiho


This is what is left of the school in the village just down the road from Liahona.


Two of the buildings were destroyed, and a third lost its roof.


Air conditioning, Tongan style.


Classes have been suspended. (But some schools are holding classes outdoors.)


Things haven’t been cleaned up because the administration and teachers are dealing with similar issues at home.



As of Tuesday evening – most of the island is still without power. The roads are clear Crews are out in force working on the power grid. The missionaries are EVERYWHERE. Last night we saw several zones out at the Royal Tombs, near downtown Nuku’alofa. I’m sure the dead people were grateful for the clean-up of debris on the lawn.