By Jerald Heth (Published in the mid-1970’s in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald)
The woman sat in the dentist’s chair, her eyes wide with fear, her mouth tightly closed. She was in Dr. Martha Mehrl’s dental clinic in a village on the Mountain of the Moons in Western Uganda and the pain in her mouth was severe. She lived near the village with the other wives of her husband and she didn’t know anything about dentistry. In a few minutes, she fled. Ten days later, the native was back in the chair, relaxed and smiling. She opened her mouth and Mehrl extracted a decaying molar.
“What scared the woman the first time was that she thought
Mehrl, a graduate of Brie pain was from totem, a forbidden religious food that she might have eaten unknowingly,” said Mehrl. “She was healed by a witch doctor between the two visits. I don’t know what little psychological drama he used to get rid of the psychological disease, but he cured something I couldn’t.” The witch doctor might have read the cure in the way chicken blood was sprinkled on the ground, she said. Mehrl, a Roman Catholic nun as well as a dentist, said the incident occurred 10 years ago shortly after she arrived in Uganda. She’s been treating patients-with the help of witch doctors-ever since.
Mehrl, 47, was at her parents’ home in Dubuque recently, resting from a flare-up of lupus, an incurable and relatively little known disease that’s fatal unless controlled by cortisone.
She talked, sometimes with amusing irreverence and always with modesty, about how she got to Uganda and how she would be traveling around in the region in a mobile dental van when she returns in a few weeks.
Mehrl, a graduate of Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, was working as a chemist at a Dubuque packing plant and enjoying her swims across the Mississippi River when she decided to become a nun. “I just decided to try it,” she said. After taking her vows, she decided to become a dentist, becoming the first woman to enroll in Georgetown University’s Dental College in Washington, D.C. “It was no big deal,” she said of accomplishing a first. “It just happened.” And it just happened that she was the top student of her graduating class in 1958. “In another class, I may not have been number one,” she said.
Her first assignment was Rawalpindi, West Pakistan, where she set up the first dental clinic and where she learned she had lupus in less than a year. “It was hot there, and heat affects lupus,” she said. Lupus attacks muscles and joints in any part of the body, she explained. She was near death when she was flown back to Philadelphia, Pa., home of her order, the Medical Mission Sisters. The disease finally was brought under control by cortisone. Too much cortisone can be fatal, too, she said, adding, “but you don’t waste sleep over it; you do what you can.” While she was recuperating in Philadelphia, she did dental work for other sisters and for two years served as administrator of a home for unwed mothers.
After five years, she decided to return to dentistry full time. She took a crash course in Swahili after deciding to go to Uganda. “It’s near the equator and it’s 65 to 70 degrees year-round,” she said. “The cool weather is easier to survive in with lupus.”In the early days,” she said, “I’d go on safaris, carrying a portable (dental) chair and a bunch of forceps. I’d stay out a couple of days, pull a bunch of teeth and then go back. It wasn’t very satisfying.”
In 1972, the Ugandan government ordered Asians and some Europeans out of the country. The American Embassy was closed and departing officials warned Mehrl and other missionaries of the dangers if they stayed. “We were not there for our comfort or for politics,” she said. “We were there to serve the people. Women are safe from local trouble,” she said. “Local people look out for us professional people. They know who we are; our white faces stick out pretty good.” Mehrl said her missionary work does not interfere with the tribal religions. “We didn’t go there to sing songs and preach,” she said. “We went there to give them good medical care.” She walked through army roadblocks on her way to work and soon Ugandan police and army officials became her patients. One of the generals gave her eggs that were hard to come by, she said.
The daily routine became tougher. Mehrl said she was the only dentist in the western regions to serve hundreds of thousands of people and treated at least 30 patients a day.
“I worked five days a week and I did the books for the (sisters’) house,” she said. “I did some shopping and looked after the car and still got my prayers in.”
When Mehrl returned to the United States two years ago on a regular leave to rest she brought with her an idea that pleased Ugandan health officials. She would raise the money to buy and convert a van into a completely equipped mobile office. She would travel the western regions treating difficult dental cases and helping dental auxiliaries who, in Uganda, perform simple extractions and clean teeth.
She got what she wanted, soliciting money and help to finance the $48,000 project. Part of the project included the work her brother, Robert Mehrl of Dubuque, provided in converting a Mercedes Benz van into a dental office that now is on its way to Uganda.
As soon as she gets approval from her doctor in Philadelphia, Mehrl said she is heading back to Uganda.
Asked if reports of war and unrest in Uganda would make it difficult to get back there, she replied: “They are anxious to have medical personnel. I’ll probably have more trouble with the American government than the Ugandan government in getting back there.
“It’s really pretty routine there,” she concluded. “I get a vacation, eight hours of sleep and go swimming or fishing on holidays.”
Here is a LINK to a PDF file of photos mailed from Pakistan and Africa by Sr. Martha Simon in the 1970’s. (CLICK ON “LINK” in previous sentence.)