Floating Dentists: Tal Sahar’s Eye-Opening Journey to Bocas del Toro

Floating Dentists: Tal Sahar’s Eye-Opening Journey to Bocas del Toro

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — It is no arduous endeavor for one to claim that they want to make the world a better place. It takes a special person to turn lofty ambitions such as those into a reality, though.

As UCSB women's basketball guard Tal Sahar prepares for the start of her redshirt junior season this fall, those are precisely the kinds of aspirations she has in mind.

"I want to make an actual difference," Sahar says. "A big difference."

This past season – her first in a Gaucho jersey – the former Seattle Redhawk proved her capabilities as a difference-maker on the court.

Her 21 points in a 72-70 win over UC Riverside this past February were the most scored by any player off of head coach Bonnie Henrickson's bench all year. Less than two months prior, competing in her first ever Big West contest, she hung 17 second quarter points on conference rival Cal Poly, setting a new program record for points in a quarter during the regular season.

If the past few years have taught Sahar anything about herself though, it's the kind of person she wants to become once her playing days are behind her. A difference-maker, yes, but one who is unselfish, empathetic, and aware of perspectives other than her own.

How she plans on going about this path, however, may not be how you'd expect...

"I want to be a dentist."

These days, the average dentist can make make upwards of $150,000 a year, a fact which the soon-to-be fourth year biopsychology major was well-aware of as she chose her initial career path. But, after her recent eye-opening experiences working in third world South American communities, a sizable pay day is no longer what she has in mind.

"I chose dentistry for, I think, the wrong reasons; for money, and a comfortable lifestyle," Sahar said. "Going through college, I've come to realize that money's not everything. I was kind of skeptical on the idea of getting into dentistry. I wasn't sure if I still wanted to do it… and then I went on this trip."

Sahar recently visited Panama on a dentistry expedition with the non-profit organization Floating Doctors, along with 11 other UCSB students. Following a full day's worth of travel spanning thousands of miles, three countries, and two continents, her team eventually landed in the province of Bocas del Toro, a well-known tourist hotspot off the Caribbean coast.

It was there, in the simplistic neighboring coastal communities, that the outlook towards her life and career quickly began to change.

"We get to the community and it's super impoverished. The houses are literally made out of plywood. We have nowhere to sleep," Sahar said. "They basically dug up a hole and said this is your bathroom. It's like a completely different lifestyle. It's incredible and insane."

Immediately upon arrival, her team would follow the lead of its two professional dentists to provide care and education to the area's inhabitants. The majority of their patients were non-English speaking children.

"These communities have absolutely no access to dental care. The country doesn't really care about them, because they're not an economic asset. They're kind of just left out to dry," Sahar said. "We had to take patients all day, and there were so many of them."

Over the course of several trying days, Sahar would go on to form strong bonds not just with the diligent volunteers working beside her, but also with the abundance of aid-seeking Panamanian youth. Although Spanish is not one of the three languages she speaks, the language barrier would not faze her in her attempts to teach, spread smiles, and gain as much knowledge as possible about the area and the lives of its inhabitants.

"Kids have this blanket that they carry over there. They don't have beds – nobody has beds. You have a blanket, and sometimes the families are too big, so you can't fit them inside a house. You have to go outside somewhere and find a place to sleep," Sahar said. "Our first world problems are like, "Ugh, my phone died." But there, it's like, are we going to have food to put on the table for the next three nights? Or even for this night?"

Although the trip lasted just over half a week, Sahar had seen enough to know that her path in life would be irreversibly influenced, in one way or another. Sure, a life of dentistry could potentially give her all the material possessions she could ask for. But now, there was so much more to think about.

Not about having the coolest new gadgets, or getting to work in a well-lit office with a leak-proof ceiling.

Now, there was a bigger picture. One that included those who will never own an iPhone, let alone hold one. Those who don't just lack access to Wi-Fi, but even to clean drinking water, or a place to call home. Those who might just need a routine root canal, but will instead end up having a number of their teeth painfully extracted while sitting in a janky fold-up beach chair.

These are the images and the first-hand experiences Sahar will likely carry with her for years to come.

"I feel like in the U.S., we're taught how third-world countries live, but we don't really understand what it's like to live life like that," she said. "I lived it for four days, and I'm thinking, 'I don't know if I can do that for the next 20 years of my life.' It's really humbling and eye-opening to see what we have in America and how privileged we are."

It isn't difficult for one to say that they want to make the world a better place. But while some might have treated a demanding trip like this as a one-time thing they'd probably never take part in again, Sahar instead returned home with a renewed sense of purpose – one which likely won't pit her future patients in the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned waiting room.

"In an office, you can clean someone's teeth and they leave with a smile, but what are you really doing to help them?" she said. "I want to do something where I help people and where I can make an impact. After this trip, I realized I would love to become a dentist. Not for the money and not for the comfortable lifestyle, but so I can build and I can help people like that."

Whether it's on the basketball court, in an office, or on the coast of some remote third world nation, you can bet that Tal Sahar will continue to be a difference-maker in people's lives somewhere down the line.