All the Things Money Can’t Buy by Dr. Sherwin Shinn

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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 or anything."

The Shift

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."

Author's Bio
Krista Houstoun is the editor of an Arizona-based health-care magazine, freelance writer focused on the good things in the world and all around lover of life. She accepts words of praise at krista.houstoun@gmail.com.

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