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River doctors

River Doctors

The allure of reeling in gargantuan peacock bass like this 20-pound catch originally drew Dr. Jay Herrington '78, above, to Brazil's Rio Negro.

Photos courtesy Dr. Jay Herrington

This is what happens when a dentist-adventurer-sport fisherman encounters six people in need of serious dental help along the winding waters of Brazil’s Rio Negro

Dr. Jay Herrington’s East Texas drawl is slow and deliberate. It’s enough to make you want to lean in close for a good listen. Perhaps the only thing more characteristic is the 1978 alumnus’ knack for telling a story. And he has plenty.

Like the time several years back he was just outside the Arctic Circle on a backpack hunting trip and pulled his guide’s tooth using just 15-year-old xylocaine and a Leatherman tool. The grateful one-time patient offered to pay in eagle’s claws.

If you don’t believe him, Herrington has video to prove it.

Most recently, while winding his way down the Rio Negro in Brazil on a mid-October charter fishing trip with Arlington-based Captain Peacock Yachts & Expeditions — a long-awaited item on Herrington’s bucket list — he was presented with yet another unexpected request for help. This time it came from several residents in an isolated village where his charter, Captain Logan, had docked for the night. But this trip, he was prepared.

“Here I am going off to Brazil, so I just threw some stuff in my bag — some elevators and forceps and anesthetic,” muses Herrington. “They said, ‘We’ve got one person that needs help.’ Then six showed up.”

Between two children and four adults, he extracted eight teeth. He treated everyone with what he had brought in his luggage. When one girl wanted to save her teeth, he was able to offer some antibiotics to buy her some time to get to a dentist in Manaus, Brazil, for a root canal.

River Doctors
Herrington, left, treats one of his impromptu patients.

“I’m not really sure when a dentist was last at this village,” Herrington says. “Those people were really, really nice. They were very appreciative.”

While Herrington attended his impromptu patients, adults in the village sat and visited, laughing and carrying on. Kids played soccer nearby.

Aside from the whopping 20-pound peacock bass Herrington hauled in that trip, he left with another unexpected keepsake.

“This lady gave me a nice woven little mat,” Herrington says. “I’ve got it on my desk here.

“Some days when you come in and you’ve kind of had all you want with some of this stuff in the office, you look over and see that mat and kind of grin, thinking of a good trip.”

From the looks of things, it won’t be his last.

Leonardo Leão, president of Captain Peacock Yachts & Expeditions, was at the helm the week Herrington assisted the villagers and said during the 10 years his company has navigated the river in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, villagers regularly seek assistance.

“When we pass by, they may ask us for food, fuel, or medical and dental assistance,” he says. “When we have found people in need of support, it’s illegal to refuse help. Once you’re there, you’re sharing the river with them, so there is no way you see people in need of assistance and refuse to help them.”

The dental care Herrington provided was legal according to Brazilian law, Leão says, because it was unplanned and because there was no exchange of goods or services for his efforts.

But Leão wants a way to provide regular help to the inhabitants dwelling near his company’s prime fishing waters. His solution: River Doctors.

The pioneering initiative may begin as early as September 2013, pending the completion of Captain Peacock Expeditions’ new 125-foot yacht. Plans include space for a permanent medical and dental ambulatory, complete with a small boat to ferry villagers to the ship.

“Dental care is one problem villagers don’t know how to deal with.”

—Leonardo Leão

The idea is to bring one dentist and one physician on board each week during the prime fishing season, which lasts seven months. Temporary Brazilian licenses will be secured so that dentists and medical doctors can practice legally. To jump-start the volunteer base, Leão wants to offer four days of free fishing in exchange for three days of volunteer dental or medical care, which means volunteers need only pay air fare and visa fees.

And after one Texas fisherman’s efforts this fall, Leão has found the perfect person to recruit willing dentists: none other than Palestine-based dentist and adventurer Herrington. Work to see the vision become a reality is still far from over, though. The nonprofit foundation is in development now, equipment donations are in the works, and details regarding licensing, scheduling and visas still have to be finalized.

“Dental care is one problem villagers don’t know how to deal with,” says Leão. “There’s no toothpaste and no education on how to deal with teeth. When we stop by, we can always count on one of the villagers needing dental help.

“We will combine assistance with education. Once we’re there we can make a huge splash and help these people a lot.”

River Doctors
The extent of the supplies from Herrington's luggage