Dentist Is Filling a Big Need in Afghanistan

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, it was just a big, beige metal box in a dusty lot off Yanonali Street.

But a few months from now, it will be one of the only dental clinics in war-ravaged Afghanistan, a land where lethal dental infections are among the many preventable conditions that have driven the average life span down to 42.

The clinic-to-be is the brainchild of Dr. Jim Rolfe, a 67-year-old Santa Barbara dentist who spent a couple of vacations filling cavities and yanking teeth for Afghans who had never seen a dentist or, in some cases, a toothbrush.

“Ninety percent of the world hates America, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Rolfe, a trim, bearded man with a silver ponytail and golden wire-rim glasses. “We can make a positive difference in places like the Middle East.”


On a sultry evening late last month, Rolfe watched a crane slowly hoist the shipping container crammed with dental equipment and another laden with construction supplies onto trucks bound for the docks in Long Beach.

“Seeing them leave with our project on their backs was kind of a melancholy moment,” said Rolfe, who landed in Santa Barbara three decades ago as an in-house dentist -- and sometime goatherd -- for a now-defunct commune.

After the containers arrive at the Pakistani port of Karachi, they’ll be hauled overland to Kabul, Afghanistan, where Rolfe will unpack them on a patch of land inside the city’s Darul-Aman medical complex.

The parcel, which has been earmarked for the makeshift clinic by the Afghan government, will be the site of a permanent dental-training facility that Rolfe hopes to build later. In the meantime, patients will be treated inside his labor of love: a fenced-off freight container shielded from the baking sun by a prefabricated plywood roof.

It’s not a mission for the faint of heart. With some sections of the country still virtually lawless after three decades of war, Afghanistan is experiencing a resurgence of violent attacks by Islamic militants.

The country also has been shaken by riots evidently reflecting dissatisfaction in some areas with the U.S.-backed government led by President Hamid Karzai.


Even so, over the last 18 months, Rolfe has poured more than $200,000 into what he calls the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project. Still working full time, he has spent his off hours inside the 320-square-foot box, constructing three intricately designed treatment rooms, a sterilization area and a lab for the manufacture of dental prosthetics.

Falling in a tangle of electrical wires once, he smashed four ribs, tore both rotator cuffs and wound up in a local hospital. Gashing himself with a saw blade another time, he anesthetized his own wound and stitched himself up.

“It’s been tough, but I didn’t know of another way to do it,” he said. “I talked to several organizations about partnering, but they’d try to take control. The only way I could get it done was to keep on doing it.”

The project is far from finished.

With another two shipping containers waiting in Kabul, Rolfe plans to set up a quadrangle overlaid by a large roof. In addition to a generator, a transformer and water-purification equipment, he has shipped over enough equipment for a dozen additional treatment rooms -- not to mention shoes for 1,200 orphans.

Rolfe said donations have been sporadic. American Tooth Industries in Oxnard gave $122,000 in dentures. An Orange County elementary school gave 7,000 toothbrushes. And Rolfe has collected used chairs, X-ray machines, dental tools and the like from dentists throughout California.

A few of his patients have pitched in as well. Aerospace engineer Scott Savre figures he spent 1,000 hours helping with design and construction. Yoshiko Nester, Rolfe’s girlfriend, revved up her power tools on weekends. She also decorated the treatment-room walls with the words “love,” “peace” and “dream,” ornately painted in English and Farsi.


Afghan officials have been warm to the project. For routine dental visits, many of them fly to Dubai, seeing no good choices at home.

“I, as the Minister, will be one of your patients and should pay a little, since I can afford it,” wrote Mohammad Pashtun, the nation’s minister of urban development and housing, in a 2005 letter to Rolfe.

Passionate in his belief that the United States has contributed heavily to the degradation of Afghanistan, Rolfe spent three weeks at an orphanage there in 2002, working from dawn to dusk on patients who had trekked to see him from the most remote corners of isolated Wardak province.

He returned to Afghanistan for a couple of weeks two years later, offering his services at a women’s clinic in Kabul.

On his upcoming trip, he plans to get the clinic up and running. Afterward, he’ll be back in Santa Barbara, filling cavities and yanking teeth as he drums up donations of money and manpower to keep his brainchild alive.

“This is a gift to the people of Afghanistan,” he said. “But my life is here.”