Rapid City dentist spreads smiles across India

 Dr. D'Jonna Sewell performs free dental care to children at an orphanage in India.
Dr. D'Jonna Sewell performs free dental care to children at an orphanage in India. (KOTA)
Published: Feb. 12, 2019 at 1:48 PM CST
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When you think about taking time off, you might have dreams of Hawaii or Europe. For a Rapid City dentist, her idea of taking a break is to use her talents to help others.

A few weeks ago, Dr. D'Jonna Sewell trekked to India to perform some amazing work.

It's a long journey to India, nearly 8,000 miles from Rapid City. But in some ways, the drive from the airport in India to the orphanage seems much longer. People drive on the left side of the road, which is unsettling enough for many Americans, but they also seem to pay little attention to the street markings and signs.

Which is why, many say that in India you need a good horn, good brakes and good luck.

On this particular morning in February of 2019, a Rapid City dentist brings luck and a whole lot more to town. She is traveling to a home where she will provide free dental care to orphans.

When she arrives, a young man, whom Dr. Sewell has known since he was a child at the orphanage, helps carry her very heavy suitcase filled with dentistry supplies.

As she walks into the home, which will soon become her temporary dentist office, she reminds us to leave our shoes outside as is tradition in India.

Then Dr. Sewell gets busy setting up. She puts together a lightweight dental chair that she helped design. It allows her to perform dentistry almost anywhere. As she says, "I've pulled teeth under a tree when necessary." You've heard of a mattress in a box, this is more like dentist office in a box. A dental chair made of corrugated plastic that folds up into a box, making it easy for travel.

"It works great and if we're traveling to remote areas it makes it really easy and it doesn't break down. I've had this chair for probably 20 years" says Dr. Sewell.

The only other thing she needs before getting to work is the dental tools. That too, comes in a box.

"I have a portable dental unit so I can truly just set up a dental clinic in just minutes" she says.

She'll spend several days here in this bedroom turned dental office to help the smiles of these children of India. A lot has changed since she first started coming here 15 years ago.

"When I first came here the kids had never had toothbrushes" says Dr. Sewell.

On this day, one young girl named Saranya, has a badly infected tooth which has to be pulled. Saranya has never had her mouth numb before and a translator is trying to explain what is about to happen. Basically, that a needle is about to be inserted into the inside of her mouth. It is a situation that Dr. Sewell is familiar with and it concerns her.

"I always wonder when I'm doing this - they have no idea what I'm doing, what to expect, so it's hard" she says.

Saranya has already dealt with much pain in her young life.

The orphan girls who come to get their teeth examined, almost didn't survive at all.

As Dr. Sewell explains, "A lot of times girls are not as valuable as the boys, so it's easier for them to throw the girls away or just not want to care for them."

And although the orphans wear glamorous gowns and happy faces, behind each smile is an unspoken sad story about how the girls came to be living in an orphanage. Dr. Sewell is careful to treat each girl with dignity.

"We don't ask a lot of questions like how did you come here, why are you an orphan, what happened to your parents ... we ask them what do you hope to do someday" says Dr. Sewell.

She wants them to have more than just luck, she wants them to have hope. And she finds that in India, which is 80 percent Hindu, providing that hope isn't easy.

"My understanding of the Hindu religion is that helping people isn't always a good thing because they believe in karma so a lot of times it's just what they think people deserve."

India's recent crackdown on accepting foreign aid has hindered those who are trying to help these children.

A Colorado-based Christian charity, which helped tens of thousands of children in India, was forced to close last year, accused of engaging in religious conversion.

That is frustrating for Dr. Sewell who says that "for us in America we see people on the streets or people in pain and we want to help. Here, no one will help them no one will feed them. There's no welfare in this country so unless people are willing to do this, they just continue to suffer."

For Dr. Sewell, here in this family home, helping these young orphans have reason to smile, God's work is truly her own.

Dentistry is a small part of the work being done. Dr. Sewell is also helping provide shelter and education for these orphaned girls. If you'd like to help, Dr. Sewell has set up a GoFund me page. You can find it at