I’m a dentist but I work with people with additional needs, for example, anxious patients, housebound patients and people with special needs like autism and learning difficulties. Also marginalised communities like homeless people and travelling communities.
25 November 2019
What did you study at Queen Mary and why? I studied Dentistry at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry in Whitechapel. When I was young I really enjoyed sciences but I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab later on in life. I like human interaction and helping people; I guess that’s what swayed me more towards dentistry, the combined appeal of helping people, using my hands and a little bit of science as well.
Did dentistry, particularly in your first year, combine traditional elements of science that you were familiar with from your previous studies? First year involved more biomedical science, so biology based and a little bit of chemistry as well. There were elements that were dragged in from A-levels but once you get to university level, you quickly realise that there is a lot that is removed from the A-level syllabus to make it much more digestible at the time. Subsequently, there was a lot more work involved during first year; we were expected to try and learn completely new topics from what we had previously studied.
How did you find this transition from your first year of A-levels to your first year of university and having to learn new topics afresh? I found it a little bit more difficult because at university you are more responsible for your studying and your education; it is up to you to revisit content and to make sure that you have a sound knowledge of it. Whereas previously at school, knowledge was drilled into you until you knew it. It was more difficult at the beginning, but towards the end of my studies I got used to this way of learning and having to discipline myself.
What are you doing now? I work as a community dental officer, so I’m a dentist but I work with people with additional needs, for example, anxious patients, housebound patients and people with special needs like autism and learning difficulties. Patients who would typically find it difficult to access the general dentist as their surgeries may not be as equipped as our surgeries to treat such patients. We also see marginalised communities like homeless people and travelling communities.
How did you find yourself in your current role? What were the stages you took beforehand? I graduated 3 years ago in 2016. For my first role, I was a dental foundation trainee which every dentist must undertake in order to become an NHS dentist. It was a fantastic opportunity where I treated the general population and acclimatised to the way of NHS practice.
During my second year post-graduation I undertook another training position as a dental core trainee. I worked in Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital with the Oral and Maxillofacial surgery team; they dealt with conditions affecting the head and neck such as fractures to the jaw, mouth cancers and soft and hard tissue surgery. I improved my skillset in Oral Surgery but also essential skills in time management. The only issue was that we had to be on call, essentially similar to junior doctors and this was very gruelling at times.
After this, I wanted to maintain a better work-life balance. I applied to a few roles and I ended up in Salford which was where I started my community role and where I realised that I got more job satisfaction helping people with additional needs. I have now moved away from my brilliant team in Salford as I have recently got married; I am now working in Southend in the exact same role.
Did you have to do any additional training where your job involves working with patients with additional needs? Most of the time it was training on the job; the nurses I work alongside are very experienced and know how to coax patients to relax so that we can look inside their mouths. I have gained formal training in inhalation sedation, which is similar to the gas and air which women receive during childbirth; a little nose piece is fitted to supply patients with air all the time in order to relax them and make it easier to accept having dental treatment.
What is most challenging and most rewarding about your job? The most challenging aspect of this role is to manage expectations of what can be achieved with patients with additional needs. For some patients, sometimes the best thing for them is not to put them under even more stress and treat them, especially when they are not showing signs of pain or discomfort and they are eating well and living their best life. Sometimes it is difficult to have this conversation with parents and carers and to make them see what you see. I am still learning how to deliver this conversation, especially when you know that the individuals involved in the care of the patient want the best for them too.
Most rewarding is the fact that because our patients have so many challenges seeing a normal dentist, when they do come to see us, we are able to provide more treatment and better care for them. In return they are very grateful and when I go home and sleep at night, I can sleep well knowing I have provided this service.
Do you have any future career goals? I’d like to complete further training, possibly in special care dentistry. I need a little bit of time to figure out which direction I want to work towards. There are different challenges coming in every day in my current role, there is always more to expand on and learn, so future training is potentially about 5 years down the line!
What made you choose Queen Mary in particular? I was studying in Ockbrook, Derby for my A-levels, a very small town which could be quite repetitive at times considering that there was only one newsagent which closed at 5pm. Having been born in Hong Kong, I was used to the buzz of city life and I craved this again. Therefore, all of the universities that I applied for were in cities and I had a lot of friends that were similarly applying to London universities. I wanted to experience London living and I’d heard very good things about Queen Mary.
Can you describe what an average day looks like for you? Most days I will be in clinic which involves seeing new special care patients or those who have been referred in to have the inhalation sedation or general anaesthetic. We then need to assess how well we think the patient will cope and what sort of treatment they need, which falls under secondary care. We then develop and discuss a treatment plan with the parents or the people looking after the patient to ensure that they are happy with it. A lot of paperwork needs to be filled out to accompany each patient too!
Apart from seeing new patients, we have treatment sessions where we provide treatment for special care or sedation patients; there are days where I go out to do domiciliary sessions for those patients who aren’t able to visit the surgery, for example they might be bedbound, housebound or they might be in care homes or too anxious to leave their homes. Domiciliary visits are quite nice as you can have a break from the clinic environment. The types of treatment we provide can be quite limited; for example, we can provide dentures or very simple fillings – a lot of the time we are addressing pain. Domiciliary visits do not provide the right setting to remove teeth because you might find yourself giving the patient a medical emergency where they often have additional medical problems already. For more difficult treatments, we might need to plan to treat them at a hospital where other qualified medics and anaesthetists can help us look after the patients.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Particularly, what I loved about the dental school was the fact that because we were such a small class – we maybe had sixty to eighty students in our year – everyone was really tight knit and there was always a friendly, familiar face. Seeing as dentistry was a five year course, we all grew together and supported one another. For example, we would quiz each other on topics all the time. I never felt isolated in any way – I had my clinical group of about eight students, as well as my clinical partner. I’ve made lifelong friends – two of whom were my bridesmaids; post-graduation you all go down different dentistry paths, but you share your stories and worries along the way which brings you closer.
I also met my husband here at Queen Mary. We met in a society called ABACUS – The Association of British and Chinese University Students. We both became committee members and nothing really transpired until my husband graduated and we started hanging out more. I am glad that I met someone outside of dentistry because I don’t have to talk shop all the time and I can relax when I get home.
Lastly, everyone was always so friendly; I wasn’t ever scared to ask my lecturers questions seeing as they were so approachable as well as being very experienced and knowledgeable. The dental school also had a great scheme where older years come help the younger years and give additional lectures to make sure that they understand concepts fully. The fact that dental students hung out a lot in dental labs meant that we were able to learn a lot from lab technicians which made it easier when we graduated and started to work in the real world.
Do you have a favourite spot on campus? Not so much a favourite spot but there is this little bagel shop in the Garrod Building on the Whitechapel campus called Beigal Bunnies. It is run by two lovely ladies and it is a perfect place to stop for lunch. Their hot soups and little stews provide a pick me up if you’re having a bad day or if you’re in need of some comfort. Their bagels come from Brick Lane too which is really cool! I also love the location of the Whitechapel campus in general. At the start of my studies, I was intimidated by the fact that Whitechapel isn’t necessarily central London but once I settled, I really enjoyed the diversity of the place, especially Whitechapel market. My husband and I now live in Mile End which has changed a lot over the years - some lovely, quirky cafes have sprung up and we love that it is close to Central, Stratford and Shoreditch. It really is quite up and coming and a decent place to stay while you’re young!
Do you have any role models or people you admire inside or outside of your field? My aspirations are always changing, as I learn more on the job I discover areas that I haven’t noticed before. I don’t have a fixed person who I look up to but different people inspire me in different ways. For example, one of my colleagues aspires to be an actress and does dentistry to support her acting career which I think is amazing. I really admire her spirit and where she is so creative she is really good at painting a picture for our child patients to help them relax. For me, it is about learning everything that is good about a person and how best to utilise their skills.