A lot to gain

Dr Unna Chidambaram says there is nothing to lose and a lot to gain by giving up some time to volunteer.


Growing up, Dr Unna Chidambaram was involved in fundraising for charity with her parents and the experience seeded a love of interacting with like minded people and giving back.

“I really liked the way it made me feel,” she recalls. “When I became a dentist, I really wanted to give back doing something which I was skilled at, so for me, volunteerism dentistry was something easy to do.”

Unna has since given back via multiple dental volunteerism groups, including Kimberley Dental Team, Healing Smiles and overseas dental volunteering trips.

Kimberley Dental Team

Unna’s first experience with the Kimberley Dental Team was as a final year dentistry student. Unna says the team became very close and the trip was an incredible experience. “It was on that trip I met my (now retired) boss, Dr Andrew Heap and that is how I got a job; I have been at the practice for eight-and-a-half years now,” she says. “Volunteering trips like the Kimberley Dental Team give you a great opportunity to network and meet other dentists and like-minded people. It is a very collegial environment.

“I went back two years later, as a graduated dentist, which gave me the opportunity to do more than I was able to do as a student, which was very rewarding. Jan and John (Owen) go above and beyond and are so caring and nurturing on these trips; you get a vibe that you are in a big family and that is testament to them and how they created the program.”

Overseas dental trips

Unna has also volunteered further abroad – travelling to Cambodia in 2014 and to India with Equal Health in early 2020. “In 2014 a dental friend of mine asked if I wanted to do a dental volunteering trip in Cambodia so I went along as I am always up for a challenge and different experiences,” she recalls. “I got to meet some other young graduates and it was an amazing experience.” Unna says volunteering overseas and in rural areas is challenging, but the experience was amazing.

Volunteering with Equal Health came about when Dr Andrew Heap asked if Unna would be interested in going, as he was unable to attend.

For Unna, aside from the enjoyment of doing things like giving oral hygiene instructions to children in the local schools, it was also a rewarding personal experience. “We went to a part of India where my grandparents are originally from,” she says. “I have a good understanding of the language but struggle to speak it, so it was a great experience because it was the first time I had gone without my family, and it gave me the opportunity to improve my language skills.”

For overseas volunteerism, Unna says a highlight is being able to experience the culture authentically. “I have been to India a few times, but I had never been without
my family, so it was great to have a different experience. We had home cooked meals and we walked to the local tea shop – those things are what you remember. You also quickly develop a bond with the people you volunteer with because you spend a lot of time with them.”

Healing Smiles

Closer to home, Unna has been volunteering with Healing Smiles for a number of years, and says her current boss, Dr Steve Hollander, kindly provides the practice and materials for her to treat the Healing Smiles patients.

“Volunteering with Healing Smiles is very rewarding because it is about empowering women,” she says. “Many of these women unfortunately have had negative experiences in their life and my role is to do a little bit to help them feel more confident and empower them to take the next step.

“Treating them can be challenging but immensely rewarding because usually at the end of the treatment they are very grateful, and a few tears are shed. Sometimes there are hugs and sometimes it might be a gentle smile. I think that says a lot because often they come in in a very broken state and for them to show any acknowledgement is amazing.”

With Healing Smiles, Unna says a lot of the treatment involves providing pain relief and things like replacing broken teeth, dentures and treating stress-related bruxism.

“We provide the full range of treatment for these patients,” Unna explains. “Often you get to communicate with the other female specialists in Perth as well; it is a great community and everyone is very giving with their time and their experience.

“I really like that we can offer the full coverage of treatment and the best care. The patients can see an endodontist for root canal treatment, an oral surgeon for extractions, an oral medicine specialist for splint construction and a general dentist for fillings and dentures and crowns. It is great that we can pull our own expertise together and is a rewarding initiative to be part of.”

Dental Rescue Days

Unna also volunteered at a Dental Rescue Day with her practice a few years ago and says it was also a great experience. “15 staff came together on a Saturday and we had the opportunity to make a number of people feel better,” she says. “It was all organised by ADHF (the Australian Dental Health Foundation), who gave us a list of patients, and it was a great team building experience for the practice.”

A lot to gain

To other dentists considering volunteerism opportunities, Unna says to give it a go. “You don’t have anything to lose and a lot to gain,” she says. “You get a lot of self-satisfaction from doing something that in my opinion is very simple, using the skills you already have, with a little bit of time.”

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