Dentist on a mission

Jan 07, 2013

John Gillan holds a patient

John Gillan admits he’s hooked … on dental mission trips.

It’s a quantifiable habit: Since 1991, the Tempe Nuevo, Arizona, Kiwanis member and endodontist has made two trips to Romania to teach endodontics; 16 trips to Albania, where he and an oral surgeon started a dental conference that has grown from 75 in attendance to more than 400; two trips to Kosova to teach; and, most recently, six trips to Cameroon, where he practiced oral surgery “in the bush.”

That’s 26 trips and counting. And he’s paid for them largely out of his own pocket, bringing his own supplies to share with other educators and to treat patients.

“When I was first asked to go to Romania, my thought was, ‘What an adventure!’” he says. “Once I found the value of giving of myself, teaching and making true friends in these developing countries, I was hooked. It’s a great thing to be working with a group of professionals and lay people who are working very hard and spending their own money—not for financial profit.”

While Gillan’s Christian faith and commitment to mankind are his motivation for mission service—and his motives truly are altruistic—in 2009 he received a surprise honor. Albanian President Bamir Topi, who had heard of Gillan’s work and met with the endodontist the previous year, arrived at the opening ceremony of Gillan’s dental conference to give a speech to the attending dentists. After the speech, he invited Gillan to the stage and presented him with the Albanian Medal of Gratitude.

“I was very humbled. I was just doing something I loved,” Gillan says. “Some friends in Albania told me that night they had tears in their eyes, being happy for me to be honored. Albania had the harshest dictator in the world rule for years. I feel privileged to be part of their rebirth.

“The rewards for me are the friendships and the satisfaction of making a difference in children’s and adults’ lives. I have learned to realize that each person in the world is very special. To encourage one person, one child, is a really big thing.” —Amy Wiser