Wealth Is a Chance to Help Those in Need: Richard Chang’s Story

Written by Audrey Cheng
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Dentist Richard Chang (second right) serves during Care Now’s free clinic event in Los Angeles, California, in October 2011, as the non-profit organization invited Tzu Chi International Medical Association members to participate and help those who can’t afford medical insurance. Photo/Meixue Lin

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The Buddha said, “It is difficult for those who are rich to learn the way,” but it was not difficult for Dr. Richard Chang. Born and raised in affluent California, Chang is highly educated and has a successful career and family. And yet, he is humble and compassionate and will voluntarily go to food banks and other places where impoverished people gather to look for anyone in need of dental care and provide free services to those who can’t afford dental bills.

Chang got involved in Tzu Chi USA’s missions in 1990; his mother, a long-time volunteer, had introduced him to Tzu Chi. He actively participated in free clinic activities during their infancy and donated the first dental diagnostic and treatment equipment (portable units operated on a table) to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra, which catalyzed the launch of free dental care and outreach services.

A week before participating in Care Now’s free clinic, Dr. Richard Chang and his wife, Gloria Chang, also a Tzu Chi volunteer, pack medicines together. Photo/Meixue Lin

The Young Dentist

Shortly after graduating from a dentistry school in San Francisco, Dr. Richard Chang followed his mother to the Tzu Chi USA Branch office in Alhambra, California (later converted into the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic). It was the first time he came into contact with so many Tzu Chi volunteers at once, a group his mother introduced as “Tzu Chi from Taiwan.” Chang was attracted to the plan of a free clinic center with a fixed location, targeted at helping underprivileged communities, and donated three sets of dental equipment to the clinic in a row. 

Chang also found out that there was a set of portable and easy-to-use equipment that comes in three boxes, including instruments for grinding teeth, a compressor for compressing air, and a box containing equipment used in a general dentist’s office. The manufacturer miniaturized these devices so medical personnel could easily carry them to any free clinic site to provide dental services. At the time, one such set cost $5,000. 

Chang immediately ordered two sets, one of which he donated to the Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan. “Since Hualien is not easily accessible, more people may be able to use them,” he thought. He donated the other set to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in the U.S., so the medical volunteers could be equipped with complete diagnostic and treatment equipment when they went into remote communities. “Only a limited number of people can come to the clinic in person, so we should be more proactive!” Chang explained.

For the past 30 years, Chang has supported free clinic activities in the United States and internationally. Since he was once on the University of Southern California faculty, Chang emphasized the need for new dental equipment. He wanted to ensure the volunteer doctors could access the best and most up-to-date equipment to provide optimum and comprehensive services to underprivileged and underserved patients.

I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of doctors, volunteers, and patients to promote the programs and change the general public’s impression of free clinic facilities as outdated and dirty.

Swollen Faces

The year 1992 marked the launch of Tzu Chi USA’s first international free clinic outreach, for which Tzu Chi USA volunteers all mobilized to raise funds to buy devices and equipment. Dr. Richard Chang immediately donated dental equipment, driving many doctors to follow suit. However, he didn’t want to take credit for donating, simply saying: “At that time, it was easier to make money.” According to Chang, there are many specialties in dentistry, and he specialized in cosmetic dentistry, teeth whitening, and orthodontics for well-off patients, so he earned a high income at the time. Moreover, he believed that it’s appropriate to give back to society.

The compassionate dentist lamented that customers requesting cosmetic dentistry are either wealthy or privileged, and those who come for help aren’t suffering from dental pain but are seeking dental perfection. Dentists offer these patients whitening, orthodontics, and disc finishing and polishing services. However, the majority of disadvantaged people seeking care can’t afford the most basic services and are left to endure the pain from their dental issues without getting treatment.

In the United States, many dental and eye care treatments are covered by medical insurance, with dental services charging the highest rates, making free dental clinics particularly popular. In contrast to those willing to spend a lot of money to make their teeth look pretty, those who can’t afford to see a dentist can only hold their swollen faces and ask God for help. Chang, already a certified Tzu Chi volunteer then, realized Master Cheng Yen’s counsel, “Teach those who are rich and help those poor.” So, he worked hard to earn money and then joined the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic team to give his time, spirit, and money to those in need.

Chang is thankful that he is on the Tzu Chi path and that Master Cheng Yen taught him to “give.” From donating dental equipment to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in the early days to later supporting free clinic services through donations toward the participation of Tzu Chi Mobile Clinics in free medical outreach, Chang, who has a strong sense of Buddhism, said, “It’s great to know Tzu Chi, compassion, and goodness make life more meaningful!” 

Dr. Richard Chang explains how to operate the portable dental equipment Tzu Chi volunteers bring to the Nos Petits Frères et Soeurs (Our Little Brothers and Sisters) Foundation’s orphanage in Haiti following four consecutive hurricanes and tropical storms that hit the nation beginning mid-August 2008 and added misery to the devastation already caused by extreme poverty and famine there. Photo/Bornain Chiu

Difficulty Extracting an Unusual Tooth

Dr. Richard Chang makes good use of his time. From small and medium-sized community free clinics and health days in the United States to free clinic services internationally, he could be seen participating everywhere. According to Chang, tooth extraction was the most challenging since this is a specialty in dental practice. He specializes in cosmetic dentistry; tooth extraction is not generally within his expertise. Every time he saw a patient who needed tooth extraction during a free clinic, it posed a challenge. 

Once, when Chang participated in a large-scale free clinic event in San Bernardino, California, he encountered an unusual tooth that was extremely difficult to extract. It was a sweltering hot day, and the free clinic site was not in good condition either; all the doctors had to improvise on the spot to solve all the difficulties themselves. Dr. Steven Fang, another dentist, worked alongside Chang, trying to remove the patient’s tooth while it was now quite late in the day. All the other dentists had already packed up and waited patiently on the bus; only Chang and Fang were still busy, sweating as they labored. It took them a lot of effort to finally succeed in extracting the tooth, and Chang later admitted with a flushed face, “It was quite embarrassing!”

In 1996, Dr. Richard Chang (first left) introduces portable dental diagnostic and treatment equipment to other doctors at the Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic – Jinyao Chang, Mingchang Hsu, Chinlon Lin, Andrew Hsu, and Joe Wang (second left to right) – hoping to add flexibility and expand the scope of the Clinic’s services. Photo/Courtesy of Shirley Chen

Chang believed doctors don’t have a right to say “no” at a free clinic event. No matter who the patient is and how complex their issue or disease is to treat, the Tzu Chi free clinic team must take over and do their best for the patient because a free clinic is the only hope left for these people to get the dental care they require. So, Dr. Chang prayed silently in his heart many times, encouraging himself so he could provide the perfect service to his patients.

​​Although free dental care services are one of the most popular clinic outreach event specialties, due to the constraints of venues, weather, and time, plus the number of patients often exceeding the resources available, participating doctors would often sigh as they indicated that what was needed was beyond their capacity. Therefore, Chang frequently wrote down his clinic’s address, inviting patients with severe dental issues to come for a free consultation, as many needed complete dentures to solve their problems.

I dare not call myself compassionate; dental care is something I’m actually passionate about. There’s a sense of fulfillment in helping someone with no teeth eat, treating their teeth, and providing them with a better quality of life!

Dr. Richard Chang’s love has never faltered during his thirty years of serving those in need; his heartfelt care for his patients is always present and in full force.

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