When Dr. Dave Dvorak looked into the teenager’s mouth, he felt a wave of sadness.
The boy’s parents had brought their son to Dvorak, who was caring for Syrian refugees in Greece, because of an agonizing toothache.
“He had braces on his teeth, but hadn’t seen an orthodontist for 20 months,” said Dvorak. “There was a buildup of plaque and a cavity eroding a back molar.”
Dvorak understood why.
“Less than two years ago, this boy’s parents were middle-class professionals living in a stable community, thinking about giving their son a nicer smile,” he said. “Then their home was bombed and they had to run for their lives.”
Dvorak, a 52-year-old emergency room doctor, usually treats patients at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. But twice in the past year, he has volunteered on the Greek island of Samos to treat Syrian refugees stranded there.
After struggling to share the experience of the hordes of Syrians driven from their homes, he hit on a novel idea: He wrote a song about it.
“When you come back from seeing human tragedy on a mass scale, you want to tell people about it and evoke some compassion for the plight of the refugees,” he said. “A song is a quicker way to tell a story.”
A singer-songwriter and rhythm guitarist, Dvorak recorded and released his first CD, which includes an original ballad, “Refugee Lullaby.” He wrote the lyrics in the persona of an uprooted father talking to his son about their uncertain circumstances. A four-minute video of the song has been posted on YouTube.
“Words are more emotionally powerful when attached to music,” he said. “My hope is the music might soften some hearts.”
Dvorak, who also regularly donates his time at a clinic serving low-income Minnesotans, has previously traveled to Peru on medical missions and volunteered in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake.
A widely distributed photograph of the body of a boy washed up on the Turkish shore prompted him to go to Google and type in “medical volunteer Syrian refugees.” That connected him to the Boat Refugee Foundation, a Dutch-based group. (All proceeds from the sale of his CD benefit the international nonprofit.)
“We see the headlines and the news footage,” he said. “I felt like I had the ability to help a little.”
The foundation is providing relief to thousands of refugees pouring out of Syria, including clinics that provide basic medical care. Dvorak worked in a trailer on the tiny island in the eastern Aegean Sea, seeing patients living in the hastily constructed camps who were in need of primary care for chronic diseases, acute conditions and injuries.
“Many of them have seen things beyond imagination,” he said. “They’ve seen psychological trauma; children have seen their parents executed. Now they’re in this limbo, stuck in a camp, trying to apply for asylum and not knowing their future.”
Dvorak said he fears that the Syrian crisis has no quick resolution. He’s planning to return to Samos this winter for another three-week stint at the clinic.
In the meantime, he often thinks about the boy with the toothache.
“I’m not a dentist, so all I could do was tide him over with antibiotics for the infection and ibuprofen for the pain,” he said. “It’s easily treatable with basic dental care.
“It breaks my heart when I think about how he will suffer before he might get help.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.