Don’t let his calm demeanor and easy smile fool you.
He’s the type of guy who wakes up every Sunday morning to go for a five-hour bike ride for fun.
In dental college, he was one of the few students with only two years of undergrad experience due to all the college coursework he had completed during high school.
No, Dr. Marty Killeen is no slacker, and it’s this fearless determination that has led to an interesting and varied dental career.
At the end of a fellowship in pediatric dentistry, Dr. Marty (as his patients call him) decided to start his practice in Lincoln to be near family. With the economy doing well and a limited number of pediatric dentists practicing in the area, he and a fellow new grad decided to go big and start their own practice, complete with a newly constructed building just south of Southwest High School.
Despite the bold move, like most new graduates, Marty supplemented his growing practice with an assortment of part-time positions.
He picked up jobs at the People’s Health Center and Health Department, and found himself face-to-face with children who had never been to the dentist and who often had a very limited understanding of English. He enjoyed the interactions with the kids and learned new ways to keep uncertain patients and their parents calm.
Two years following graduation, Marty’s dad inadvertently provided him with another unique opportunity when he began asking questions about how to outfit a dental team for a medical mission to Haiti.
“After getting question after question, I finally asked my dad if he wanted me to take over the trip. Nine years later, we’re about to take our ninth consecutive medical mission down to Haiti.”
The first trip to Haiti occurred two years before the devastating earthquake that hit the country in 2010. Over the last eight years, Marty has seen incremental change, but he understands that even the most minor shift can make a great difference in the life of one individual.
“We set up our clinic in the middle of Haiti, in a place called the Kobonal Mission – basically in the middle of nowhere. A lot of people farm and you see them walking around with their machetes and no shoes. When we first went, the place barely had electricity. We had to fly to the location in small Cessna airplanes, circling the landing spot twice in order to scare away the livestock that graze there.”
One of the biggest improvements he’s seen since the earthquake are the roads, which are now semi-paved and allow the team to get there by bus.
Dr. Marty jokingly refers to the trip as the Haitian Vacation, and talks fondly of the results he’s been able to witness from eight years of treating patients with little to no other health care services.
“Mainly, we are doing extractions and fillings, sometimes even dentures. An oral surgeon accompanies us for the more difficult cases. Because they speak Creole, the patient simply points to the areas that are hurting, we take a look, agree on a number and then get to work.”
He goes on, “One of the most rewarding things are the relationships we’re beginning to form. We are starting to recognize families and see that our education efforts are making a difference. During our first year in Haiti, we were able to see 400 patients as a team. This year, with 18 people going down, we anticipate serving 2,000.”
The team has also seen a reduction in tooth extraction and infection.
“There are unique challenges for us in Haiti. We line the kids up and use an interpreter to show the kids one-by-one how to use a toothbrush and talk about reducing their sugar intake. The problem is – these kids usually don’t have enough to eat, so they offset their hunger by chewing the sugar cane that is on the roadside and in the fields.”
Despite the difficulties, they are excited when they see their efforts paying off.
“We were driving along a dirt road when we looked up to see a kid standing in the middle of the Haitian countryside, brushing his teeth with his new toothbrush.”
Though the stories he tells seem like a distant reality from the common American experience, Dr. Marty easily finds connections. He switches between descriptions of his patients in Haiti, those he continues to treat at the Health Department, and the growing practice at his own clinic.
Dr. Marty finds that people in every place have the same basic needs and desires.
He takes pleasure helping the six-year-old in his clinic overcome his fear of a regular check-up. Likewise, he is grateful for the trust he receives from parents commuting from all over Nebraska and even out-of-state when their general dentist is unable to treat a child’s more complicated dental needs. Or the child in Haiti who looks up at him and lays still while the strange dentist from a different country offers comfort and pain-relief during an extraction.
“It’s never just about filling cavities, it’s about the people.”
The combination and the diversity of needs and outlooks Marty is daily presented with create a multi-faceted job that requires patience, persistence, and a great deal of care for the patient. He is grateful he has found a career that allows him to care for people in a way that shows them how much they matter.