Dr. Pearl Burns practiced dentistry in our community for more than 30 years. In retirement – if you can call it that – Dr. Burns is traveling to the far corners of the globe to provide free care for those in need.
After spending more than 30 years as a dentist in Winter Springs, Pearl Burns could have easily savored a cushy retirement of scuba diving, leisurely lunches, and biking around Seminole County’s many trails.
Instead, as a self-described international dental missionary, Dr. Burns has found herself sleeping in a hammock deep in the Amazon jungle, surrounded by chicken wire to keep out the bats. She has dined on wild pig and survived on nothing but rice. She has endured cold showers, or no showers at all, and braced for small-plane landings in a lumpy grass field.
Since retiring from Artisan Dental in 2013, Pearl has criss-crossed the globe to deliver dental care to the poor and malnourished. From Bolivia to Thailand to Jordan to Ethiopia, she has helped those for whom fluoridated water and regular medical/dental care are unheard of, healing neglected and abscessed teeth in often primitive conditions.
For now, Pearl is living on a ship off the coast of impoverished Guinea, Africa, going ashore on weekdays to join a team of dentists and hygienists who treat 60 to 70 grateful patients a day.
“Why wouldn’t I do this? I’m healthy and have lots of energy,” 64-year-old Pearl says during an email interview from the ship Africa Mercy. “I’m not retired, I’m refocused. There is so much need in this world.”
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Pearl knew she wanted to be a dentist at age 16. She joined the Naval Reserve at 24, where she had the opportunity to support the Navy’s oral surgery department.
“I believe it was God preparing me at that time to do what I’m doing today,” Pearl says from her ship.
She began her private practice in Winter Springs in 1982, retiring (make that refocusing) 31 years later.
Throughout her years of practice, Pearl was constantly involved as a dental volunteer in Central Florida communities where medical care is lacking. For her, it only made sense that she begin exporting her expertise to other nations.
Pearl participated in her first mission trip to Honduras in 2007, and, 55 missions and 22 countries later, she shows no sign of slowing down.
In fact, she is currently on the most intense mission of her life. In contrast to the typical 10-day to two-week excursions of the past, Pearl boarded the Africa Mercy in October and will return to her home in Lake Mary – briefly – in February.
Things are a little different aboard the Africa Mercy than they were in the Ecuadorian jungle. In her private cabin, Pearl doesn’t have to worry about bats, and instead of a rice diet, she enjoys three square meals a day. She takes French classes and plays Ping-Pong with fellow practitioners, and on weekends, Pearl says, she can refresh herself in a ship’s swimming pool.
But Pearl is reminded daily that the ship has brought her far from our community with its great restaurants and tidy lawns.
Guinea, she says, is among the poorest countries in which she has served. Pearl sees beggars on every corner, and the garbage-filled streets sometimes smell of urine. For the nation’s many illiterate citizens, a thumbprint is their signature, and the typical patient at Pearl’s makeshift clinic – due to a poor diet and lack of routine care – needs 5 to 15 tooth extractions.
Perhaps Pearl’s most valuable duty is to empower those she leaves behind.
During her missions, Pearl has trained physicians and surgeons to extract teeth, and she’s even trained pastors and other local people to perform routine dental care after her departure. One of her pupils in Ecuador was an explosives expert by day.
Pearl serves with numerous faith-based organizations such as Global Health Outreach and Northgate Ministry Philippines. She purchases all her own supplies including gauze, gloves, toothbrushes, and surgical blades.
During her downtime, Pearl enjoys scuba-diving (she has successfully completed more than 600 dives) and spending time with her daughter Pattie of Oviedo.
Not that downtime is ever in abundance. When Pearl returns from her current mission, she will spend all of 10 days at home before she takes off for a new mission in Cambodia and the Philippines.
“My suitcase,” she says, “is always open.”
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