When Dr. Sherwin Shinn woke up at 40 years old with the realization
he was inexplicably unfulfilled, he didn't go to the nearest Porsche dealer
to buy a fancy new ride. But he did plan a bucket-list trip to climb Mount
Everest - a trip which at the time, unbeknownst to him, would require
him to save a child's life, forever changing the course of his.
While decades later Dr. Shinn would come to be seen as a worldly
traveler, at the time of this Mount Everest excursion to Nepal in 1990, he
had never traveled outside of the Pacific Northwest. "I was very comfortable
in private practice," Shinn explains. "I was making money. I was
comfortable with my family. Everything was on cruise control and I
thought: 'Well, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I've already
started to achieve those goals that I set out for and now what? There's got
to be something more than this.'"
With this curiosity firmly in place, he reflected on some of the dreams
he had as a child. The one that never relented, "To climb big mountains."
And it's no mystery where the seeds of that childhood dream came from
- Dr. Shinn's neighbor growing up was Jim Whittaker, the first American
to summit Mount Everest.
"I used to work for him when I was kid and he would tell me all these
amazing stories about the adventure, climbing mountains and hanging
out with the sherpas in Nepal," he says. So when his childhood bucket list
came flooding back to him after years of hard work and little play - and
with the growing sense of discontentedness - he made a strong commitment
to himself to do it no matter what.
And a year later - after reading, studying, preparing and, unfortunately,
all his anticipated climbing buddies canceling on him - Dr. Shinn
did it. He traveled alone to Nepal for a six-week, soul-shaking journey -
his first, but far from his last, trip abroad.
A Whole New World
To say what Dr. Shinn saw shocked him when he landed
on the other side of the world would be an extreme understatement.
His lack of travel experience had more or less
locked his perception of how the world worked to how his world worked.
"It was a life changer for me just realizing I had a really narrow
view of what the world was like and people and their
lifestyles and cultures - it was amazingly educational for me,"
he says. "I remember I called my wife and said, 'Even if I never
get out of the hotel and I never go to the mountains, what I
just saw in the last 45 minutes from the airport to the hotel was
well worth every penny.'"
But he did go to the mountains as planned. He trekked the
Himalayas, alone except for a couple of guides, for the entire six
weeks and fell in love with the terrain, the people and the adrenaline
inherent to adventure. Dr. Shinn describes the time spent
in the mountains as "challenging but life affirming."
On the very last day of his trip, when the unimaginable happened,
the trip shifted from life affirming to life transforming.
As he was leaving to start his day, he heard a child crying somewhere
in the lodge where he was staying. Following the bellows
of pain, he came to a room with a wailing five-year-old girl
being comforted by two elders. "The little girl had her mouth
open and they were both looking inside; I stood in the doorway
and I'd totally forgotten I was a dentist," he says. "I was there to
climb mountains - I didn't even think about teeth."
After this initial lapse in identity passed, Dr. Shinn quickly
snapped into action. When he examined the girl, he saw she was
swollen from her left-side temple all the way
down through her face, her neck and into
her armpit. The swelling, he saw, was the
result of a life-threatening systemic infection
born from a couple of abscessed teeth.
"She was probably going to die in a short
period of time from the infection unless
something got done; and nobody there knew
what to do, what caused it, how to prevent,
or anything about it," he says.
But Dr. Shinn knew.
The teeth needed to come out urgently
so Dr. Shinn arranged to take the child to the
local field hospital. After some resistance, the
elders let him take her on the 2,000-foot
climb to the hospital. When they arrived, he
expected to hand her over to the doctors and
continue on his mission of enjoying his final day of travel, but
he was hit with a different reality. Realizing he was a dentist, the
hospital doctors stressed that he should be the one to handle it
because he knew more about it than they did.
He could feel the weight of the situation grow. "If we had
been in the States, this kid would have been in the hospital on
an IV and it would be a very serious situation," he says.
To make matters worse, when the doctor arrived with the inhouse
dental equipment that Dr. Shinn needed to make the necessary
extractions, the contents inside were less than desirable.
"There were probably a dozen discarded, broken dental instruments
all corroded together in a big pile," he says. "Literally
with fuzz growing over the top - mold."
Dr. Shinn happened to have a pocketknife on hand. With
that and an unmarked vile of what the doctors promised was
anesthetic, he performed emergency surgery.
"She was a really brave little kid," he says. "She didn't cry
Performing an emergency surgery with a pocketknife was
certainly not how he imagined spending the last day of his trip,
but in hindsight it couldn't have happened any other way. The
surgery coupled with what happened next was the catalyst for
shifting the trip from life affirming to life transforming - a shift
he was hungry for.
As he went to take the girl back down to her village post-surgery,
Dr. Shinn thought he was going to have to carry the girl all
the way due to the combination of the reasonably aggressive
procedure and the extremely aggressive hike. However, "once she saw the roof of her house below, she just took off running
like an antelope," he says. "And I mean, it was a rugged and
steep trail; I was in the best shape of my whole life and there was
no way I would have ever been able to catch her. I could just see
this happy energy, this aura coming off her. She knew she was
going to survive."
Up until that point he had been feeling frustrated that his
day had been overcome by the unexpected - he had been hoping
to take some pictures of Mount Everest on the opposite side
of the valley at sunset before departing, thinking he would likely
never be back to visit the region again. "But as I saw this little
girl run home so filled with joy, I felt this mass wave of shame
come over me," he says. "I stood there and I thought, 'How dare
I feel frustrated when kids here are dying every day from infections
from abscessed teeth?'"
Dr. Shinn realized from this experience the amount of
deaths in the area could easily be prevented by the simple act
of handing out toothbrushes and showing people how to use
them. A toothbrush, he realized, was a powerful, life-saving
tool in that culture. "I had cases of them in my office given to
me free by companies for buying their products and every one
of those toothbrushes had the chance to save a kid's life somewhere
in the world," he says. And so I vowed at that point to
come back and do just that. It's the least I could do for these
people who treated me so well and taught me so many things
about life and survival."
And come back with toothbrushes in tow is exactly what he
did - many, many times.
Spreading the Good Feeling
After that original trip in 1990, Dr. Shinn traveled back to
Nepal four times over a 10-year period with his mission to distribute
toothbrushes and oral health information. In the process
he even helped build a dental clinic. The fulfillment from this
charitable dentistry was, he says, incomparable.
Dr. Shinn originally went into the dental profession
because he developed a passion to empower people to make
their dreams come true (a childhood accident that long-term
hospitalized him, and the caring hospital staff who took care
of him inspired this dream). When deciding what he wanted
to do with his life, he hoped to evoke this same sense of
empowerment for others.
"Dentistry became a vehicle to be able to have those experiences
with people, to empower them and make them feel good
about themselves, make them feel confident that they can make
their dreams come true for their own lives," he says.
To a degree, he experienced providing this sense of empowerment
in private practice. But the extreme value of his profession
kicked in when he began charitable dentistry - even if it
was initially by accident.
And his passion just got bigger and bigger. The ongoing
work he did in Nepal garnered national attention and soon he
was recruited to begin spreading these charitable dental services
to various other countries. "I got to the point where I was getting
calls to go on these trips more than I could afford to out of
my own pocket," he says.
This obstacle propelled Dr. Shinn to enter the world of nonprofit
work, an avenue that allowed (and still allows) him and
many other dentists the opportunity to volunteer their skills
internationally and experience the same kind of deeply fulfilling
and life-transforming experiences Dr. Shinn experienced that
first trip abroad.
He founded Smile Power in 1998 to help establish funding,
but left in 2007 to live and work in Uganda. Today, he is presdent of For World Wide Smiles, a nonprofit that creates partnerships
in order to improve and sustain dental health and
build bridges of friendship around the world. Shinn thinks
everyone has an inborn urge to give back but don't always
know where to start, so he actively tries to procure new volunteers
to go on charitable trips.
"I know it's going to change their lives for the better,"
he says. "I'm not saying you have to dedicate your life and
do only that, but at least go once and see what it's like and
then you can decide how to change your life if you want to,
or don't want to."
Humanitarian of the Year
After many years of giving and motivating others to
give, it really shouldn't be surprising that Dr. Shinn
received the 2013 Humanitarian of the Year Award from
the American Dental Association. But of course, to a man
of humility, it was surprising.
"I was just totally shocked," he says. "Literally. It wasn't
anything I was thinking about. It just came totally out of the
blue. I just couldn't believe it. Is this a dream? I sat there for a
minute or two in tears. For me it just says that whatever we've
been doing, somebody has taken notice... it just makes you
feel really humble."
Dr. Shinn might not have made it to Mount Everest's
summit to plant a U.S. flag as his childhood neighbor Jim
Whittaker had done decades earlier, but stemming from his
time climbing big mountains, he has undoubtedly conquered
the philanthropy summit.
Prior to his first trip to Nepal, he knew in his gut there
was "something more" to life than what he had experienced
up until then. His answer came in the form of the
unexpected, as epiphanies typically do. And the answer
was giving back.
"When you work for money, you get to have all the things
that money can buy," he says. "When you give unconditionally,
you get to have all the things that money can't buy."