Writing My Own Narrative

(Photo above by Michelle Grambeau)

Rachel Mundus is changing the narrative of dental care in Detroit.

I decided on my career in the first grade. My teeth starting falling out, and I experienced the magic of them growing back in; I was fascinated. I decided to become a dentist.

Shortly after making my determination, I realized that I was not as quick as other kids in mathematics and science, subjects that I needed to succeed in to become a dentist. Every thought about how incapable I was further cemented my sense of unhappiness.

In college, I became paralyzed by anxiety. Intimidated by the difficulty of my courses, I found myself escaping my challenges and treating my body recklessly. By my junior year, I felt I had hit the lowest point in my life.

Learning that I could change anything with my Buddhist practice was the most liberating feeling.

On the third day of school, I fell down some stairs and broke my back. For two months, I laid in bed in excruciating pain, incapable of doing anything on my own. When I returned to school, my roommate noticed how much I was struggling and mentioned chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a means to overcome suffering. I began chanting with her every day and immediately felt I had found the spiritual medicine that I needed.

Learning that I could change anything with my Buddhist practice was the most liberating feeling. Buddhism was an intervention of the disbelief in my life’s potential, and I became determined to accomplish my dreams and help others have the same hope. My goal of becoming a dental provider no longer felt like a distant dream.

Several months in, I faced another major health obstacle. While riding my skateboard, I hit a break in the pavement and was launched off my board. I landed head-first on concrete, which left me in a coma for 14 hours and with a traumatic brain injury. During my recovery, I chanted every day to not be defeated.

I would read books written by Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda, and this really hit me:

True success and honor in life come as a result of triumphing over your weaknesses.

The New Human Revolution, vol. 25, p. 84

After reading this, I felt a little brighter and a little bigger than my problems. I knew I couldn’t give up.

I chanted to recover as fast as possible and, only one month after my accident, I returned to school to finish my last two semesters and graduated from college.

I even took the time to encourage other young people in my local neighborhood Buddhist group to also not give up on their dreams. I felt so empowered when I knew my victory could inspire others and it helped me to keep going.

In 2015, I started working with a nonprofit mental health agency that supported my submission to obtain a large federal grant to develop a brand-new dental program that would serve anyone in need. One year later, we were awarded two grants that enabled us in September 2017 to open a fully comprehensive dental health program and clinic for all!

A dentist inspecting a fake mouth for dentistry school

Photo courtesy of Rachel Mundus

This clinic is crucial to Detroit because people without commercial insurance and those experiencing homelessness and mental illness historically have lacked access to dental care, leaving many people in oral pain. Every day, I see a sense of hopelessness in the community I work in, and the only way I’ve learned to create hope has been through the conviction that I can transform any situation because I have Buddhability.

We are now serving 600 patients, and as a dental clinic coordinator, I’ve helped four clinics get off the ground to serve the community. I’m currently in the process of helping build a new, mobile clinic with improved equipment, that will travel to shelters in the Detroit area to serve the people.

Next year in May 2021, I’ll be officially receiving my preventative dental license.

Today, I continue to use my Buddhist practice to challenge my dream of becoming a dental provider for the people. Understanding that my struggles have made me far more humble, patient, compassionate and hardworking, I am eternally grateful for my path.

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