“I know I’m different,” said dentist Ed Valda, while talking about the path which led him to opening a pediatric dental clinic in Mountainair, serving almost exclusively Medicaid patients.

Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Valda came to the United States as a toddler, and grew up in Maryland, attending the University of Maryland for a Biology degree. It was the 1980s, and the hot topic in virology was HIV and AIDS; Valda had taken a class on the subject and was on the way out of the building after taking his final when he saw a notice on a bulletin board.

That notice led him to a job working in the lab of a Nobel Laureate, Dr. Hamilton Smith, who figured out how to “snip” DNA, leading to breakthroughs in that field that are still being explored today, Valda said. And only 7 months after starting work in his lab, Valda (“beginner’s luck,” he said) figured out a way to crystallize that DNA—Hamilton’s goal.

Valda co-authored a paper with Hamilton and was offered a full ride scholarship to work in his lab for graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. To the surprise of his family, Valda turned down the scholarship and went to sell Hondas and clean houses to make a living. “My family had a fit,” he said.

His original plan had been to be a pediatrician; Valda’s grandfather was a doctor. “I’m 25 years old, and one night I say, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a scientific room like this,” Valda explained, adding, “I didn’t have a better plan. I just knew I didn’t want to be a scientist. After four years of finding out what I want, I went to dental school and became a pediatric dentist.” He has now been practicing for 24 years in the Gallup area.

His path into a Mountainair clinic is somewhat unlikely, as well. He came into the area because a hobby of his, drone photography, is also a business. He was contacted by an archaeological society to take photos in the Chupadera Mountains, and visited Mountainair.

“[Mountainair] needs a dentist, so I started looking into that,” Valda said. He met with realtor Todd Sledge. “He helped me with locations, so boom, we’re going into Mountainair as a dentist.”

It’s a 3-hour drive from Gallup to Mountainair, but Valda plans to make the trip once a week to open a clinic on Fridays. That could expand, depending on the need and the community’s response.

Valda has a passion for bringing dentistry to children in underserved areas, and started a nonprofit called Indigenous Dental Outreach. In a few weeks, he’ll be deep in the Amazon jungle in Peru, potentially making contact with people who have never met outsiders before to bring them dental services.

His grandfather’s example is at least part of his inspiration. He ran the local hospital in Bolivia and a village of about 2,000 people, Valda said, never taking payment but instead bartering. “Before he died, he said, ‘Hijo, I’m the happiest man I could have been.’”

Valda said his practice is “99 percent Medicaid,” adding, “I will not turn down a child if you don’t have money. That doesn’t happen with me.”

He will work with payment plans and even treat adults in an emergency. Valda said the only reason he doesn’t to house calls is because it’s illegal. In Gallup, he has been known to open his office on Sunday to treat a child who needs immediate dental attention.

Called Small Fry Dentistry, Valda’s office can be reached at 505-721-0040 for information and scheduling. Some details of his Mountainair operation have not yet been finalized.