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Why should I wait for someone else?

A founder of modern endodontics in Africa makes a major gift to the Foundation

Foundation President Dr Margot Kusienski congratulates Dr Okwen on his new Foundation pledge at the AAE22 Foundation donor reception in Phoenix.

For Dr. Mbachan Okwen, the mission of providing endodontic care is one that hits quite close to home, both in Texas and halfway around the world in Africa. 

Brought up in Cameroon, he says “endodontics really is the most absent part of dentistry in the developing world, especially in countries like Cameroon and the Congo….  

“My vision is to improve access to quality care, so Africans can have the same exposure to the care we have here, treating every patient as if I was the one sitting in the dental chair….Where I grew up there really was no dental care,” he says, recalling his own early experience with extractions pulling out his siblings’ deciduous teeth and how his mother used to ignite a bowl of leaves from which to inhale as a way of cleaning plaque. 

Dr. Okwen is the only dentist in a family of five physicians. He attended secondary school at a Scottish Marist college in Cameroon, graduating at the top of his class. As there were no dental schools in the country, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Benin in Nigeria. While labor strikes delayed his dental education for two years, he took graduate level accounting courses before arriving in Florida in 2002 to begin an internship at Nova Southeastern University, where his credentials allowed him to teach but not practice. Okwen completed an MBA at Nova and subsequently worked as an accountant where he was in charge of a medical plan for 5,000 members of the American Maritime Officers union. 

Dr Okwen hopes the example of his work will inspire others to get involved in their own communities and to contribute financially as well. 

Still eager to return to dentistry, in 2014 he was accepted into a preceptorship at the UT Health Houston under Dr. Samuel Dorn, who responded positively to his proposal to pursue graduate training and initiate an endodontic program in Africa. Dr Dorn had previous experience with a similar project on the island of Fiji. Okwen completed his graduate endodontic training at UT Houston in 2016. 

During his preceptorship, Okwen bought some used microscopes and instruments from the university at auction and took them to Nigeria to start the first endodontic program in western central Africa. He began teaching students and faculty at the University of Benin exactly how endodontics is practiced in the States. 

“The goal was to get them to do exactly what we do here and nothing less,” he says.  “Of course, there’s always tons of patients…” 

Okwen prepared a curriculum similar to UT Health Houston, starting with pre-clinical techniques and basic science courses which the university adopted.  The 100 faculty he trained educated others, “which makes a big difference in a country of over 200 million people. Now they’re doing pretty well teaching the same techniques we do here,” Okwen says. 

Fueling his generosity today is a robust Houston-area practice which focuses on emergency dental care and operates 24/7. Okwen drew on both circumstance and strategy to develop the business model for the practice he wanted to open after completing his American training.   

“It was a huge challenge to get anyone to refer, even tougher for a minority professional…a lot of people were quite reluctant…” Okwen recalls. 

“But we had big hospitals coming up. If you go to the hospital with an abscess, they don’t usually have someone who can do an incision and drainage, let alone a root canal.  We have an on-call endodontic microsurgeon who can do all of that.   One patient was airlifted downtown, but if she had come to us in time, she could have had an incision and drainage and a root canal and that would have resolved the issue.” 

Even a bit whimsically Okwen recounts all manner of accidents and injuries treated at his office, which is located about 10 minutes from UT Houston. 

“People walk their dogs and fall, or the dog pulls them, they crack a tooth eating, or get into a fight and get a tooth knocked out… especially on a Friday or Saturday night. We see a lot of teeth that need to be replanted. People in a golf tournament getting teeth knocked out or kids at camp, cheerleaders at a football game, people putting up a Christmas tree, even a former Marine repairing his garage door who was injured by the door spring and could have lost three teeth.” 

For the future, Okwen is looking to start a second program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year, he made a major gift to the Foundation which puts him among top donors at the Titanium recognition level. 

 Dr Okwen hopes the example of his work and philanthropy will inspire others to get involved in their own communities and to contribute financially as well.   

“Having that primary connection to Africa pretty much required that I do something because if I don’t do it, why should I wait for someone else to when I’m in a full position to? Giving back has been very impactful in my life in the sense that money doesn’t make you happy. People make you happy. When you get them out of pain they will never forget. That impact of seeing your effort making someone happy and even joyful is so heartwarming.”