For well over a dozen years, thousands of people received dental care from a very remarkable woman in Shisong, Cameroon.
In the late 1990s, the Tertiary Sisters of Saint Francis in Cameroon committed to establish a dentistry at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Shisong. The options for quality dental care in the northwest region in Cameroon were very limited. The decision was made to invite one of the nuns, Sister Emmamark Verjai (Sister Mark), to be trained to start the operation. As a brevete nurse, she worked with an oral surgeon in Italy. Then in 2000-2001, she enrolled in the dental assisting program at Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wis. as part of an existing partnership with the Franciscan Sisters in La Crosse, Milwaukee, Northern Italy, and Cameroon. She completed the diploma program, and she also had an opportunity to have internship experiences with several La Crosse area dentists and a dental laboratory.
It is an oversimplification to say she was a good student. Though Sister Mark speaks English, the African dialect is certainly different. And dental assisting is unquestionably a technical field of study. She understood that she was studying dental assisting. But as amazing as it sounds, she planned to provide full dentistry services when she returned to Cameroon. In her internship experiences in La Crosse, she was very focused on and observant of the work done by the professionals.
Near the end of her stay in La Crosse, she stopped by my office to share some gifts and extend an invitation to visit Cameroon. I have to admit, at the time, I never thought I would take her up on the offer. In 2006 and 2007, two faculty members from Western visited Sister Mark in Shisong, Cameroon. When they returned to La Crosse, they both shared their stories and renewed the invitation to me to visit. I guess they were pretty persuasive, because in 2008, my wife and I visited Sister Mark. She greeted us at the airport and over the course of the next two weeks took us to nine communities. We visited health clinics and schools operated by the Tertiary Sisters. We also had a chance to get to know Sister Mark.
We visited her family home and met her mother ... a delightful, cheerful woman. Her father passed away a few months before we arrived. He was a traditional leader. The family home is a simple red clay brick structure with a mud floor. Nearby are two similar structures. Each provided a home for her father's three wives. The Cameroon culture, like much of Africa, is a triad blend of the religious impact of the missionaries, the development of African-led governments, and the historic tribal culture. Sister Mark's family roots and her vocation as a nun are a blend of two of the three cultural elements.
The dentistry in Shisong is clearly Sister Mark's operation. She does everything ... extractions, oral surgery ... everything. In 2007, she helped one of her apprentices to set up a satellite dentistry in Njinicom, thus expanding services in the region. To be certain, the demand for dental care is unrelenting and the needs go beyond simple dental procedures. For example, during our most recent visit to the Shisong dentistry, Sister Mark was treating a young man from Nigeria who was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. His jaw was fractured in two places. She worked alongside the hospital surgeon for a four-hour procedure to re-set his jaw. Her skills and dedication are amazing. Her mentor, the oral surgeon from Italy, maintains that the dentistry skills of Sister Mark are second to none. Literally, thousands of people from the region of northwest Cameroon and nearby Eastern Nigeria have been served by the two dentistry operations over the last twelve years ... all under the leadership of Sister Mark. It is a remarkable story about a remarkable woman.