From dentist to director: Welcoming Dr. Monica as ASRI's new leader

Monica Ruth Nirmala, DDS is part of a proud, if new, tradition in Borneo: dentists saving the rainforest. This month, she follows in the footsteps of internationally celebrated dentist and conservation inspiration Dr. Hotlin Ompusunggu by becoming the Executive Director of Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI).

Dr. Monica with one of her patients

Dr. Monica with one of her patients

How did a dentist come to lead a community-based conservation program? Shortly after graduating from one of Indonesia’s top ranked dental schools, Universitas Indonesia, Monica came to Borneo from Java to follow her passion for public health and community development. While working at a medical mission hospital five hours north of ASRI, she heard of the ASRI clinic’s innovative, holistic approach to healthcare for people and the planet and was intrigued. One meeting with ASRI founder Dr. Kinari Webb later, and Monica had a job as ASRI’s newest dentist. After two years, she has now stepped up to run both arms of the program.

I sat down with Monica in her home in Sukadana shortly before her promotion to Executive Director to find out more about what makes ASRI unique in her eyes.

“ASRI is special because of the values Dr. Kinari developed,” Monica told me. “The staff always tries their very best, always working hard to give the community the best we can. This atmosphere influences everyone to constantly improve and learn to give their best in limited facilities.”

Monica (center) with other members of the ASRI and HIH staff

Monica (center) with other members of the ASRI and HIH staff. Photo: Michelle Bussard

Monica embodies that enterprising spirit perfectly: while seeing dental patients during clinic hours, she also manages the community wells project, assists the accountant with ASRI’s financials, coordinates with the Health In Harmony staff, and even found time last year to scout potential replication sites as an ASRI staff representative. Her efficiency, effectiveness, and devotion to her work are truly remarkable, but her dedication is the rule, not the exception, among the staff.

ASRI’s patients notice. “People here used to look down on doctors for consulting books and discussing diagnoses because they thought that meant the doctors didn’t know what they were doing.” Monica has seen that attitude change as ASRI’s doctors often cure patients that were misdiagnosed at other healthcare facilities. “Now, people know our doctors are taking care to get the right diagnosis.”

This open discussion is another important facet of ASRI’s success, according to Monica: “Everyone is equal at ASRI, and everyone has the right to share his or her ideas and be listened to. It gives us the chance to learn deeper, and understand problems better. Listening and speaking freely lets us improve faster because we get to know the real problems and solutions right away.”

The energy and sense of purpose this creates is palpable. At morning meetings, the entire staff – medical, conservation, and support - gathers before the clinic opens for the day, squeezing into the waiting room. The talk circles around the room, each person speaking in turn to share upcoming activities or unravel ongoing challenges through group discussion, and actively listening during others’ turns. The sense of community is powerful, and affecting:

Monica and Etty with ASRI's conservation comic

Monica and Etty with ASRI's conservation comic. Photo: Michelle Bussard

“The community is my favorite part of ASRI. ASRI is like a family – we’re all really close, and have a lot of respect for each other.” Monica shared -- and that may be the true secret to ASRI’s success in combining healthcare and conservation.

“One problem conservation NGOs often face is people thinking they love trees more than people,” Monica told me. “Here, people know ASRI first as a clinic, so they’re more open to our other programs. They know we love and care for people.”


Help us welcome Monica to her new role – donate today to support our clinic so Monica and the ASRI team can continue to spread the love for people and the planet!


About Kelsey Hartman | View all posts by Kelsey Hartman

Kelsey is the Communications and Marketing Associate at Health In Harmony, based in Portland, OR.