Christ the Healer medical mission spreads love
They met on a blind date for a high school dance. She was from Mount Carmel and he was from Jesuit, and they just clicked.
“He was very clean-cut looking and just easy to talk to and be with,” Janice LeBlanc said of her future husband E.J. “He liked to laugh a lot.”
They eventually married, and E.J. followed his childhood passion to become a dentist.
Most kids don’t grow up dreaming of becoming a dentist because the caricature sours them on the profession. From a patient’s perspective, without the benefit of general anesthesia, it’s hard to really enjoy the whirring drill creeping in from left field, the blinding light and the blinding white lie (“this won’t hurt a bit”).
But Dr. E.J. LeBlanc had seen his uncle transform other people’s lives with his dentistry, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps of bringing the smile after the pain. Over the years he developed a thriving dental practice in Metairie.
Then, one day in 1998, a friend of his, Dr. Bill Wayman, an endodontist, told him about a medical mission program called Christ the Healer, which had been started by then-Msgr. Gregory Aymond, the rector of Notre Dame Seminary, and Marianite Sister Bertilla McNeely to help the poor in Granada, Nicaragua.
The medical outreach program, begun in 1992, had never had a dental component, but it wanted to start one now. Wayman, LeBlanc and Dr. Vic Babin made that first trip. E.J. had never been out of the country before.
“It was a total culture shock,” Janice LeBlanc said. “They thought that at least they were going to have a dental chair, but they had to examine people in a straight-backed chair. They had to borrow forceps, and they extracted teeth with a flashlight. When E.J. came back, he said, ‘We’re going to need our own space.’”
Over the next 12 years, E.J. fund-raised and sought out donations of used dental equipment that could help stock the clinics. A group of affluent Nicaraguan women called the “Angels” raised money for operational needs, and now the program, in addition to a medical clinic, eye clinic and an orphanage, has two dental clinics staffed year-round by Nicaraguan dentists.
Christ the Healer sends medical professionals to Nicaragua three times a year (in January, April and August). E.J. became even more involved in the administrative end of the program, and he made 20 trips to Nicaragua – 17 accompanied by Janice.
“It was such a big change in our lives,” Janice said. “You appreciate your life here so much more. You look at the people of Nicaragua and they have so little, and yet they make do. They have happy children who make toys out of weeds from the bushes and trees. People would sit and wait all day and then be told because of the crowd that they would have to come back tomorrow. Some of them had walked two miles barefoot to get there. They never complained. We take so much for granted.”
E.J. was retired and volunteering his dental services a couple of days a week at the Covington Food Bank when he got a few warning signs about his own health. He was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. About three weeks later – on Father’s Day in 2010 – a clot broke loose and he died at age 66.
Before and after his funeral at Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville, cards and letters from patients, both in the U.S. and in Nicaragua, poured in with stories about how the dentist had touched their lives.
“It was overwhelming and so encouraging,” Janice said. “It opened my eyes because I had never sat down and thought about all the good my husband had done. People from Nicaragua sent flowers and cards and prayers. It just made me sit back in awe of my husband. I knew he was hard-working. I just never accumulated how many people he had touched just with his dentistry.”
And then last August, Christ the Healer dedicated the “Dr. E.J. LeBlanc Dental Clinic” in his name. Janice made the trip for the ceremony.
“The toughest thing was not having him to work with,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were going to need me to do. So I spent one day logging medicine and writing out prescriptions. One day the electricity went out, so I went with the priest, who had his guitar, and we sang to the people waiting to be seen. It was very good.”
Janice now works spreading the word about Christ the Healer to as many medical professionals as she can reach. “We need some new young people to keep these clinics going and growing,” she said.
Young people are needed to pick up the tools of her husband, who smiled a lot and who also helped resurrect smiles that once were lost.
Christ the Healer will host a benefit and auction June 22 from 7 to 10 p.m. at Park View Terrace in City Park. The next Christ the Healer medical mission trip will be Aug. 4-11. Doctors, dentists and medical professionals are needed. For more information, contact Dr. Bill Wayman at (985) 727-9759.