As a three-year-old living in a Tanzania refugee camp, Shimirimana Eliya was often in so much tooth pain that he couldn’t eat or sleep.
One morning he got up at 5, walked for three hours with his mother in the blistering Tanzanian heat and stood in line all day at a dental mission just to be turned away because supplies ran out.
After that day, Eliya, or “Shim,” to those close to him, vowed to himself to get his pain fixed and to prevent something like this from inflicting others in his situation.
“I was going through so much pain that I didn’t even know that it was something that was preventable,” Eliya said. “I didn’t know it was something that a little quick fix with a toothbrush and toothpaste could prevent.”
Eliya didn’t know it then, but he was about to foster a lifelong passion that would take him to the United States, and give him the education necessary to help those who suffered as he did.
Tooth decay, a worldwide issue
Eliya suffered through severe tooth decay, and he knew he wasn’t the only kid in Tanzania with this issue.
“Think about it, we lived in a refugee camp where they’d give us sugary food and candies without giving us access to great oral health,” Eliya said.
Poor dental hygiene is a problem far too common in today’s world.
Nearly 3.5 billion people are affected by oral diseases worldwide. That’s almost 45 percent of the world’s population. Untreated tooth decay in permanent teeth is the world’s most common health condition, according to the Global Burden of Disease.
The problem doesn’t just affect less-developed countries, like Tanzania, either.
When Eliya entered the U.S. and moved to Fort Worth, he realized preventing tooth decay is a worldwide issue.
“It’s not only people in Africa that don’t have oral health knowledge,” he said. “There’s people here that aren’t aware about the difference between a dentist and a hygienist, and aren’t aware of the precautions they could be taking to prevent tooth decay.”
Nearly 53% of kindergarteners and 67% of third graders in Texas experience tooth decay, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
‘I like prevention’
Because of the pain Eliya felt when he was a child, he took interest in dental hygiene as a career, he said.
“So I chose to do dental hygiene, because I like prevention. Hygienists educate us on what to do and what not to do, and how to prevent certain tooth decay and the diet that you should be taking to prevent tooth decay.”
So, after Eliya graduated from Fort Worth’s Amon Carter-Riverside High School in 2017, he knew he would pursue a career in dental hygiene to provide treatment and education he wished he had as a child.
Eliya on May 26 earned his bachelor’s of science in dental hygiene — and it was a long time coming, he said.
“It’s really rigorous,” Eliya said. “Work over there is really hard, but, for me, I always wanted to be in this environment.”
Coming full circle
Texas A&M was a perfect fit, he said. He credited the program and multiple professors like Leigh Ann Nurick for molding him into the dental hygienist he’d become — one who will travel the world giving the care he never received as a kid.
Nurick expects Eliya to have a wonderful career ahead of him.
“He was always respectful… he kind of led by example, rather than words… he just put his head down and worked,” said Nurick, the undergraduate program director and a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M.
The Texas A&M University School of Dentistry holds a mission trip every year where students and faculty provide dental care to those who rarely receive it. Last year, Eliya and his classmates were in Zambia.
Eventually it will come full circle for Eliya, he said. For now, he’s applying to public health jobs because that’s where he thinks he can help the most people possible.
Soon, he plans once again to go back to Africa — and Tanzania.
This time, he’s hoping he has enough supply for everybody standing in that line.
Matthew Sgroi is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.