Toothpaste doesn’t usually arouse much excitement in people. But for Abdul “Abe” Abdulwaheed, the sight of an office full of tubes of Crest was like a fantasy come to life. Back in 2001, Abdulwaheed was a student at Tufts University Dental School of Medicine and a newly minted Schweitzer Fellow running an outreach program that provided dental health information and screening services to children and elders in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. He really needed that toothpaste as a giveaway for community members.
The massive donation came through the support network that had opened up to Abdulwaheed as a result of his Schweitzer Fellowship, which put him in contact with mentors like Dr. Kerry Maguire, the head of the Division of Public Health at Tufts. Prior to becoming a Fellow, Abdulwaheed had been acting as a “one-man army,” for more than a year, doing an informal outreach and education to children in afterschool programs in Chinatown, which is also home to the dental school, simply because he saw a need in the community.
“A lot of these kids had parents that worked in the restaurant industry and the manufacturing industry. Many of them were recent immigrants so they faced language and culture barriers,” said Abdulwaheed, who speaks three Chinese dialects. “They also faced access to care issues because of the long hours that their parents worked. Very often they didn’t really get the kind of attention that kids from families of higher socio-economics status get.”
As a Schweitzer Fellow, Abdulwaheed, who is originally from Hong Kong, wisely expanded his program to include dental health outreach and education to Chinatown’s senior community as well as children, knowing that elders in the Asian community are often the “gateway” to reaching everyone else. “The members of the family that are in their thirties, forties and fifties are usually at work,” he explained. “It’s the seniors that are going to gather the information and bring it back to the family.”
Abdulwaheed’s work in Chinatown wasn’t the only time he stepped up to fill an unmet need in his community. In 2007, he opened Lux Dental in Quincy, a city with large Asian and immigrant communities, with the goal of providing quality care to low-income people. He continued doing outreach to the elderly, attended community fairs, and spoke at churches to educate people about oral health and build community relationships. He also partnered with local drug treatment programs to provide care to recovering addicts badly in need of dental work.
“Honestly, it was impossible for them to get a retail job or work in the service industry looking the way they did,” Abdulwaheed recalled. “And if these kids did not get jobs, and continued to be deprived of opportunities, they were going to go back to using drugs. We did world-class full mouth rehab on these kids so they could get a second chance.”
When deep cuts to MassHealth dental coverage in 2010 prevented many of his patients from getting care, Abdulwaheed once again took matters into his own hands. Though he had no political experience, he donned a suit and tie, went to the Statehouse, and lobbied for the restoration of funding. He knocked on lawmakers’ doors, sent letters and emails, and talked up the importance of oral health to whoever would listen. “I was a very annoying guy,” he recalled. His efforts to persuade lawmakers to adequately fund dental care for the poor and elderly were, unfortunately, in vain. About 60 percent of his patients lost their coverage.
But the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) of which Abdulwaheed had been a member since 2003, took note of his passion and asked him to join their Council on Public Affairs and their Political Action Committee. They schooled him in how to be an effective advocate. Abdulwaheed, now chair of the Council on Public Affairs and vice chair of the Political Action Committee, was part of this year’s successful effort to restore MassHealth coverage for dentures. MDS recently honored Abdulwaheed with its Volunteer Hero Award for his many years of service.
We were thrilled to have Abdulwaheed at our 2015 Schweitzer Leadership Conference, where he shared insights from his work to ensure access to healthcare for vulnerable communities and discussed how his commitment to service has shaped and enriched his career.
As it turns out, toothpaste wasn’t the only thing Abdulwaheed got out of his Schweitzer Fellowship.
“Where you end in life up really depends on a multitude of factors,” says Abdulwaheed. “It depends on your teachers, those who trained you; your parents, those you instilled values in you; the opportunities that happened around you. I was given tremendous opportunities and the Schweitzer Fellowship was one of those opportunities.”