"If you look it up online, dentists have the highest suicide rate in medical professions because it’s so stressful."

Dentist


"I THINK I'M a pretty cheerful and bubbly person. I like the outdoors a lot and I used to be really into volleyball, which I started playing in secondary school. I don’t have enough time because of university, and it’s expensive here in Australia. When you want to play, you have to pay for the court. But in Singapore the cost is sponsored by the university.

I think being in Brisbane or studying abroad has made me grown a lot. Before, I was very sheltered and protected. My life was very set out for me—not trying to sound elitist, but I went to prestigious school and there were expectations from my parents, but they were very understanding and not controlling. I’m very grateful I have the chance to study abroad.

Back then I never thought it was an option. I was like a crybaby! I’m very close to my family and the thought of being away by myself and being independent…I couldn’t fathom it.  But before coming over to Aussie, I was quite stuck up. You know how when you’re at this university age…I just felt like I made enough friends or majority of my friends, and I didn’t have to get to know more people. Making friends at university, I feel it’s more superficial. I feel closer to my secondary and junior college friends. Coming over here, I was like “Shit! How am I going to make new friends?” It was like a wave of panic. But I’ve since made quite a few really close friends.

I’m 24 years old, and I’ve been studying dentistry in Brisbane for about close to 4 years now. I want to be different from the typical boring stereotype of dentists, which are like nerdy and geeky. The biggest motivation for me to study dentistry is because my parents are dentists, and since I was young I remember going to the dental clinic and helping my parents do the ‘suction’ on patients, you know, the thing that sucks their saliva up? I’m used to the smell and feel of dental clinics, and it was always a familiar setting to me. As a kid I looked up to my parents and thought that it was something I was going to do. I’ve always been a science person and not an artsy person like my older sister, so obviously I chose dentistry.

In second year we practiced on dummy heads and did lots of theory, but in our third year there was a major transition where we had treat to real patients. So we partnered up with a classmate and learned how to minister local ansthesia. It was really funny and even though we knew all the theory stuff, we were still scared. If you didn’t do it right you could temporarily paralyse half of your friend’s face. So for three hours, the lower half of your mouth was all droopy and everyone was laughing at each other and laughing at how we couldn’t laugh properly.

 
 

The first day we saw our real patients, we couldn’t tell them they were our first because we had to be confident. My first patient was boring because she had really good oral hygiene, so I couldn’t do much. My second was a 76-year old man who was partially deaf and he couldn’t really hear what I was saying.  He had his dentures for 40 years and it was in such a horrible state and worn in so badly that there were holes in it. He couldn’t eat properly and he was very thin and frail. Because he couldn’t hear, I had to shout and everyone could hear because we were only separated into cubicles. At the end of the whole treatment, he got his new set of dentures; he looked really good in it and I felt very happy.

The idea of preventive dentistry is not in majority of patients’ minds but it’s only when symptoms gets worse, then they’ll think about coming in.  The reason why dentists are not the most loved in the medical profession is because patients think dentists cause them pain. But more often than not, they only come when the pain is too severe and by then, it’s usually too late. We are very misunderstood. We also have to be very tactful when telling them about their bad teeth and breath.

Not many know this, but fluoride is the key ingredient that protects your teeth, and the concentration in toothpaste is a lot higher than mouthwash. So using a mouthwash after you brush your teeth kind of washes away that fluoride protection and makes brushing redundant. So mouthwash is only an adjunct to brushing. We only recommend it to people who have difficulty brushing, and we’d rather you use a mouthwash than not brush at all!

Every fortnight, we are scheduled for oral medicine class and go down to a hospital to see patients. We get to see patients who come in with oral pathology and you also see cancer patients. Usually it would a very draining day and it’s depressing, because it’s never good news to break to a person that they have cancer. Or when patients have been through chemo and they’re clear of cancer, and when it relapses…I’m so used to telling patients things are okay, but this time round, what can you say? It’s just very sad. I had a chat with my professor and I asked how he numbed himself to it, and he said he’s become desensitized after seeing so many cases.

Coming into dentistry, it wasn’t like a “oh wow I’m doing this” but in a social setting when people find out you do dentistry, I find they tend to stereotype you as nerdy, or as someone who is just smart. And if you look it up online, dentists have the highest suicide rate in medical professions because it’s so stressful. Dentistry is more than just looking at teeth—it’s a skill for you to talk to the patient and let them be comfortable with looking and working with their mouth, because it’s a very personal and intimate area. It’s also like a mix of science and art in dentistry, because you need to make dentures, do the crowning and match the colour of their teeth. You also have to build rapport with your patients. After studying for 4 years, I realized I like the social interaction and helping the patients, and feeling a sense of satisfaction."

This interview with Cheryl was first published in WOOP zine #1 in late 2012.