They may have got more than they gave, said University of B.C. Dean of Dentistry Dr. Charles Shuler, referring to a recent UBC dentistry clinic held at the Anaham Reserve west of Williams Lake.
“From my perspective we did a lot of great dentistry, yet I think we might have learned more than the service we provided because we learned a lot about the area.”
The Chilcotin is far from his original home of Los Angeles, but it is a beautiful region, he said.
Between July 25 and 28, the UBC school of dentistry offered a dental mission in co-operation with the Tl’et’inqox-t’in (Anaham) government office.
A team of eight dentists, a dental hygienist, a dental assistant, two instructors, 15 students and two Rotarians travelled to Anaham, and with the help of health centre staff delivered dental care.
“It was the first time we’d been to Anaham,” Shuler said. “We’ve done clinics around the province, some in First Nations reserves on Vancouver Island and in First Nations clinics in the Downtown Eastside.”
Around 75 people of all ages from various First Nations communities attended the clinic, some returning for multiple appointments.
“It was jam-packed, even on the last day people were phoning in for appointments,” Anaham Chief Joe Alphonse said.
“People who came the first day went back home into their communities and rounded up more.”
Shuler said there was an interesting energy and enthusiasm on the part of the people from UBC and the community.
“The patients seemed to be extremely appreciative of everything. Of all the people who were there, no one left saying, ‘I hate to go to the dentist,’ they all said, ‘this was fun.’”
In more remote areas, like Anaham, distance can be a problem, he said. It’s an hour and 45 minutes from Anaham to Williams Lake, a distance people probably aren’t willing to travel unless they are in severe pain.
“I think there’s also been a historical problem with Non-Insured Health Benefits compensation. Some dentists don’t like dealing with NIHB so I think some patients don’t get accepted by dentists,” Shuler said.
The feedback from the students was extremely positive and Shuler has received e-mails from the students saying they can’t wait to go back.
One of those is fourth year student Nadine Priya KandolaListen. It was her first visit to a reserve in the Chilcotin and an opportunity she described as “once in a life time.”
Originally from Kelowna, KandolaListen has been a student leader for one of UBC’s Vancouver clinics, but had never volunteered out of Vancouver before the trip to Anaham.
“They really made an effort to welcome us and include us in their customs,” she said. “I don’t think we were all expecting that because in the past there have been a lot of people who are afraid of dentists.”
After all, when 27 dentist-types arrive in a little community, it can be intimidating,” she said. “We all became like family.”
KandolaListen will graduate in 2014. Due to her experience at the Anaham clinic she’s inspired to go north for at least a year to work in a community where there is no dentist.
“Being on these trips you really see the need in some areas,” she said.
Recently retired Williams Lake dentist Christine Constabel and Williams Lake dentist Hannah Tsao were also part of the team.
Constabel said she “poked her nose” into the project early along and ended up being a substitute team leader.
Constabel credited the blitz’s success to the work the First Nations community did with bringing patients to the health centre for appointments.
“We were there at 8:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday and had three people there waiting for us on Saturday morning,” Constabel said.
The visitors also gained cultural experience.
They toured fishing sites at Farwell Canyon, saw the Woman Who Turned to Stone, and participated in traditional games.
“I had never seen the Woman Who Turned To Stone before,” Constabel said.
“It’s a natural sculpture along the Chilcotin River. It’s a very beautiful site and we enjoyed seeing it.”
They also participated in a sweat lodge on Saturday evening and it was a first for everyone, Shuler said.
When the Anaham health centre was first built, the community had no funding for a dentist, yet went ahead and included a state-of-the-art dentist office, hoping in the future they might be able to offer dentistry, Alphonse explained.
That has been realized partly with the recent addition of Dr. Nick Girn, who through Health Canada delivers a dentistry clinic in Anaham every other week.
It was Girn’s clinic that first inspired Constabel to question the need for the blitz, but she heard loudly from the Anaham band there are more patients than Girn can accommodate.
“I connected with Dr. Grin afterwards to let him know who we had seen that might come for follow up because we didn’t finish the work,” Constabel said.
“I also wanted to tell him we’d used up the large sized gloves in the clinic.”
To augment the existing dentistry office, UBC brought five portable dental units and portable dentals chairs and instruments.
Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake grants officer Shirley-Pat Chamberlain, who participated on behalf of the Rotary Club of Williams Lake Daybreak, said she hoped the relationship with UBC’s School of Dentistry continues to grow.
“Interested individuals can start their pre-dental studies locally with a savings of almost $10,000 in comparison to cost in the lower mainland. These credits would then be transferable to the programs offered by the UBC School of Dentistry,” Chamberlain said.
Dr. Evan Wiens, who graduated from the school in 2012, helped organize the Anaham clinic.
Comparing it to other clinics, he said the response from Anaham was very warm, which helped make the clinic excellent.
“I would love to come back there next year,” he said.
A measure of the clinic’s success is the fact they were able to offer $18,000 worth of dentistry for free, Wiens said.
“It’s not to highlight the money so much as to show that even a weekend can make a difference.”