Bringing skills to Micronesia

Bringing skills to Micronesia

'Phenomenal' opportunity to help draws dentist to program

Harry Harcsztark saying his morning prayers on the back porch of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Micronesia. The Teaneck dentist volunteered to work with the U.S. Navy to bring much needed dental care to the former U.S. protectorate. Courtesy Harry Harcsztark

Harry Harcsztark – who has twice participated in U.S. Navy humanitarian missions to third-world countries – says he has come full circle. “I was in the Navy during the 1970s,” said the Teaneck resident. “It feels good to be there again.”

This summer marked the third time Harcsztark traveled abroad as a volunteer dentist. Three years ago, he went to Ghana with The Health & Humanitarian Aid Foundation, recruited by fellow Teaneck resident Mendel Markowitz, medical director of the organization. Last year, Harcsztark worked in Cambodia, under the auspices of the Navy.

“I enjoyed my experience in Ghana quite a bit,” he said. “It was very rewarding.” But since the group he traveled with to Ghana did not need a dentist the following summer, he began to look for a new place. He found it a short time later through an ad in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

“The ad said the University of California San Diego Pre-Dental Society was looking for volunteers to work with the U.S. Navy on two humanitarian missions,” he said. “I answered it, and with the background I had in Ghana, they liked me.”

This summer, Harcsztark joined the naval mission again, this time heading to Micronesia, which he describes as “one of the few true Israel-supporting countries in the U.N.”

He was gone for a month and was based on the U.S.S. Cleveland. Only three weeks were spent working, however. The other week was spent traveling to and from his destination – a trip he paid for himself.

Micronesia, some 1,000 miles southeast of Cambodia, has no Jews, said Harcsztark.

“Nothing, not even a Chabad [House],” said the dentist, noting that he worked on Pohnpei, “somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.” The Navy, he said, was “extraordinarily accommodating” of his religious needs, providing vegetarian food and granting him leave on Shabbat.

Harcsztark said that Navy humanitarian missions last for five months. He chose the Micronesia segment because it was the only one that did not conflict with the High Holy Days and Sukkot.

“I participate in these missions because they provide places to travel and see cultures I wouldn’t ordinarily go and see,” he said. What really makes it worth it, however, is “being able to help people.”

In addition to treating more than 100 patients himself, Harcsztark – the only civilian dentist on the mission – supervised the work of eight other volunteer dentists hailing from the Australian, Canadian, Japanese, and U.S. militaries. He also delivered several lectures on basic dental hygiene and on the more arcane subject of Temporomandibular Joint Disorder, or TMJ, a disorder in the joints connecting the mandible to the skull.

According to Harcsztark, the people of Micronesia “need education more than anything.”

An American protectorate until the 1990s, the nation, still partially supported by the United States, has developed an “addiction to American junk food,” he said. “Kids are addicted to sugar and have little dental education. Their teeth are rotting. I can’t even save some of [the teeth], but have to extract them. By the time they’re 40, most of the population has diabetes and is overweight.”

Harcsztark said the U.S. ambassador even suggested that Israel might reciprocate Micronesia’s friendship by providing more medical care. “He told me to tell this to Netanyahu,” said the dentist.

The volunteer said those who participate in naval missions such as the one in Micronesia serve as “phenomenal humanitarian ambassadors for the United States. They give the U.S. an excellent name,” he said. “It’s only a small outlay of money, but local people love it.”

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