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May 4, 2009

'I have no hands but I work as a dentist'


Above, the headline over a first-person account by Pak Seke (above, at work) of Jakarta, Indonesia, as told to David Goodwin and published in the dead tree version of this past weekend's Financial Times.

Here's the FT piece.


First Person: Pak Seke

It’s really very relaxed in my dental clinic: you can have a cigarette and listen to the caged birds before I start. My patients sit in the living-room armchair while I work on them. I don’t use an anaesthetic – the television is usually enough to distract them from the pain. I do fillings, extractions, braces, polishing and make sets of false teeth.

I live in North Jakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. I work in my front room, which doubles as the clinic. I’ve got the red-and-white teeth-and-gums sign stuck on my window that shows I’m an ahli gigi – a tooth expert. I’m 42 years old.

I learnt by helping another ahli gigi for a couple of years. One day I realised I could do it myself. So I bought some books, read them all and set up on my own. I’ve been a tooth expert for nearly 20 years. My wife, Jumani, began filling and drilling about three years ago, too, and helps me out when I need assistance.

When I started out, people were a little afraid of me; but after a while word spread and I got a lot of patients. I have a steady stream of customers now – about seven to 10 a fortnight. Most of my patients are working-class. If they’ve got more money, they’ll go to a dokter gigi: a dentist, or tooth doctor.

One of my fillings will set you back Rp50,000 (£3.10), and an extraction costs Rp75,000. A clean-and-polish is Rp200,000 and a personally designed brace comes in at around Rp3m (£190). If I take out an old tooth and replace it with a false one, I won’t charge you for the tooth-pull.

I’m missing both hands and one leg because my mother drank a soup with monkey parts in it when she was pregnant with me. It was my father’s idea – he was Chinese-Indonesian and believed in health potions. The medicine was supposed to stop my mother from being sick, but then I was born like this. Some people in Indonesia say that you’ll harm your unborn baby if you hurt or kill something while you’re pregnant. My mum said that I’m missing some of my limbs because the monkey had his hands and legs chopped off, too. I don’t blame either of my parents, though. I’m happy that I’ve got work. I’ve also got a great family. And both of my daughters are normal.

I was born a Muslim but most Chinese-Indonesians are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant or follow Confucianism. I don’t know when my ancestors came to Jakarta – I don’t know exactly where they’re from in China. Chinese-Indonesians were forced to give up their family names during President Suharto’s New Order, from 1965 to 1998. So now we’re all called western names or Indonesian names such as Suprianto. Even the older generations were given new names halfway through their lives. That’s why a lot of our genealogy died out during the New Order; it made it much harder for us to trace our family trees.

When I’m not busy with patients, I work as a taxi driver. I bought a minivan with the proceeds from my dental business, so I take young mums shopping, drop kids at school and ferry goods around. Driving without hands isn’t very difficult: everybody goes slow in Jakarta, and I take my time like everyone else. I put my false leg on when I’m behind the wheel so that I can use the clutch: I use a manual for more control. I’m different from your normal taxi driver. People like me for that.

Apart from when I’m driving, I don’t wear my false leg much – it grates when I walk on it. I don’t need to use it in the dental clinic as I’ve got my technique down pat. I sandwich myself between the wall and the back of the armchair, and then I push down on to the patient’s face with my forearms to keep them from shaking around. No one’s complained yet.

May 4, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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pretty inspiring, it should encourage other people who have disabilities that they should not take their disabilities as hindrance in pursuing their dream career.

Posted by: orange county dentist | Dec 10, 2009 6:54:42 PM

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