SHEENA LI as told to Kate Whitehead | South China Morning Post | Edited extracts
High-flier Sheena Li, who grew up in Hong Kong before her family moved to Canada, shuns wealth and prestige to make a difference among the world’s most needy communities
TORONTO - My parents met at Hong Kong University. My father worked in the Education Bureau and my mum was a social worker. I was born in 1979.
My parents decided to emigrate to Toronto when I was 11 – they thought there would be better opportunities for my brother and I, and there was also uncertainty over the future in Hong Kong.
If we’d stayed in Hong Kong, I don’t think my brother and I would have got the grades to go to university, but in Canada we thrived. I was determined to learn English so I could make friends. I read a lot of books and I read the Bible, which is how I became a Christian.
My auntie was involved with the church and that’s how we found a community and a life in Toronto. My brother and I got involved with a youth group, and when I was 18, I did my first trip with them.
We went to Mexico to help at an orphanage and also introduce stories from the Bible. I got to see life in a part of the world that’s very impoverished. It made a big impression on me. I was a teenager and very idealistic, I wanted to do good. I’ve ended up doing this as my career, but I’m not as naive as I was. Seeing real tragedy, violence and suffering, I realised it’s not as romantic as I used to think.
My brother wanted to do something in aerospace – he was a big fan of Top Gun – and became an aeronautical engineer. I got straight As and went on to do a four-year undergraduate degree in life sciences. After university, I took a gap year and was a bit lost. I worked in a hospital doing research.
My Sunday school teacher was a dental surgeon in a psychiatric centre and I asked if I could shadow him. That made a big impression on me and I decided I wanted to be a dentist, but not in private practice – I wanted to reach out to people who were vulnerable and needy.
In 2003, I went to dental school in Pennsylvania in the United States for four years. Then I did a residency, training in a hospital for a year. Then, in 2008, I went to Kenya for a year, with Africa Inland Mission, as a volunteer at Kijabe Hospital.
A missionary dentist and a general surgeon who dealt with a lot of trauma to the face and the mouth mentored me. The people there were coming from war-torn Sudan and Somalia. There was one man we treated who’d had a bullet lodged in his jaw for 18 years – it had been left untreated and so it was infected. I learned a lot.
I returned to Toronto and worked two jobs to pay off my student debt. I worked in private practice and also joined a government program with Health Canada that flew me to places in the Canadian Arctic to do dentistry for remote groups. I wanted to do a public-health fellowship, and went to Hawaii for 18 months for that.
I wanted to go to Africa and was set for Liberia in the summer of 2014, but then Ebola happened and all staff were evacuated. Instead, I went to Papua New Guinea. I arrived at the mission hospital in 2015 to help start the dental unit. It was a two-year posting. I saw a lot of broken jaws from tribal fights – injuries from machetes and rocks.
The highlands are very remote – there are no roads and you can only get there by flying. Some groups there were only discovered in 1933. We treated people and shared God’s love with them regardless of whether or not they choose to believe.
Many cases I treated resulted from tribal fights and domestic violence against women. In PNG, a husband sometimes takes a second or third wife and it can lead to fights. We had one case where the man took a third wife and told his first wife to go and buy rice. She wasn’t happy so he broke her jaw.
Every week, we saw broken jaws. They just pick up a rock and smash up their spouse. I also saw a lot of chronic infections: teeth abysses where the tooth has been rotting and the bone becomes infected and it can drain into their eye and the face can become swollen. People can die from a rotten tooth if they can’t get to us in time.
I’m going to stay in PNG for a while. I’m based in Goroka with a group called Ethnos360 which has aviation, so they can fly me to the remote tribes. You have to go with people who the chief knows, otherwise it’s not safe. You can’t just go in as someone they don’t know – they’ll feel threatened.
Whenever you go out, you are never alone as a girl. A lot of my friends are local people and they watch out for me. People have lice and typhoid and TB (tuberculosis) and cholera – I’ve had all my vaccinations, but there are still risks.
Being a nine-to-five dentist didn’t suit me. What I’m doing now is a better fit. I see people with broken teeth, broken mouths, broken jaws, broken lives.
I’m not paid for my work – my church supports me. I don’t make an income, but it assists with day-to-day living. But we live in abundance – I don’t think we lack. I may not drive a Ferrari, I don’t live like a doctor, but we’re very content with what we’re doing and get so much in return.