When Dr. Tom Grams entered the Nepali school for his first volunteer dental clinic in 2002, he was a little overwhelmed.
The lighting was poor, the dental seat was a flimsy folding lawn chair and the equipment wasn’t near the standards to which he was accustomed. A 16-year-old boy from the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School in Kathmandu was to be his dental assistant and translator.
“He wasn’t very well-trained at that point,” Grams, a Durango dentist who was killed during a volunteer mission in Afghanistan in 2010, says in a video completed just after his death. “Somewhat selfishly I said, ‘Well, this kid’s gotta be trained if I’m going to live through this next 10 days.’”
That boy, Raju Tamang, is now 28 and is living in Vancouver, British Columbia. After eight years of being a monk, he recently left a monastery there. And now, in the spirit of his American mentor, he wants to become a dentist.
The path won’t be easy for a Nepali boy of simple upbringing and means. But his American friends – many of them Durangoans who met Tamang or heard Grams talk about him – are doing what they can to help. They’re making contributions through Global Dental Relief – the nongovernmental organization Grams worked with – to financially support Tamang’s education.
Grams, in an unfamiliar environment and facing language and technical barriers, quickly realized he could rely on Tamang. The boy knew enough English for Grams to get his thoughts across and was eager to help.
“Everything I taught him, he just loved,” Grams says in the video.
Tamang was abandoned by his parents at a stupa (Buddhist shrine) at the age of about 3, then taken to the boarding school of about 400 kids. Grams soon picked up on the fact that it was probably the first time an adult male had ever paid attention to the boy.
“Being with Tom I feel I was protected and (he was) like a big brother,” Tamang said in an email last week.
At first Tamang would ask Grams questions about teeth as they worked. Then Grams started quizzing him: “Which teeth are we working on? ... How do we fix it?”
The boy won over his heart. Six months later, Grams took him to a clinic in the mountains, in Tengboche, to be his assistant.
“He had never flown in a plane, he had never crossed a suspension bridge,” Grams says in the video. “He was just totally enthused.”
Global Dental Relief Co-Director Laurie Mathews, who was also on the trip, recalled that the two often would talk late into the night. Mathews would join in on Scrabble games, in which Tamang did remarkably well in his second tongue, she said in a phone interview.
Tamang never had a father, and Grams never had a child.
“Tom liked to talk as he was doing dentistry and learn about the area, and Raju had such an interest in the world,” Mathews said. “They’d joke back and forth. ... And they just really bonded. It was very special to watch.”
Sandy Bielenberg, a close friend of Grams’ who lives in Durango, heard about Tamang many times. Grams says in the video that the relationship was one of the reasons he kept returning to Nepal.
“This was the most fatherly inclination he ever had,” Bielenberg said. “Tom spoke of him so often and how that was so meaningful to him.”
Around 2006, hoping to repay the kindness the school had shown him, Tamang decided to become a monk. He was sent to a monastery in Nepal’s hill country where he taught English to elementary school-aged monks in training. Grams did a dental clinic there organized by Tamang.
By summer 2010, Tamang had joined a monastery in Vancouver. Before Grams left for Afghanistan, he told Tamang he’d come and visit. Grams left in July with a group called International Assistance Mission to work on kids’ teeth in a remote area of Afghanistan. The 10-person team, which included various types of health workers, had completed its mission and had just crossed a rain-swollen river Aug. 5, 2010, when it was ambushed by religious extremists. All were killed on the spot.
When Tamang first heard the news he was shocked and hoped there’d been a mistake. “I did not believe it. How can that happen?” Finally, it sunk in that his friend Tom was gone.
“I became orphan again for the second time. It’s very sad and heartbreaking. I could not do much but ... pray for him and rest in peace.”
Early in 2014, Tamang decided the monastery life was not his path. This summer, he began taking math and computer science classes at Alexander College in Vancouver, in preparation for entering a university.
Now his plan is to study dental hygiene. If it works out in the long term, he’d like to eventually be a dentist.
The money raised for Tamang’s education will certainly help, Mathews said.
“He will have to make his own way, but I know every dollar makes a huge difference,” she said.
This story is far from complete. Tamang said he’s working hard to make his dreams a reality.
“Tom is my muse,” Tamang said. “I hope I can carry on (in) Tom’s footsteps. I am not sure if I can or not, but I will try.”
Grams never set about leaving a legacy. But perhaps he has.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.