In their different ways, Drs Chae Park and Wendy Tran have been selflessly making a huge difference to people in need, both in Australia and across the world.
Prosthodontist Dr Chae Park was first exposed to dentistry volunteerism when she was an undergrad at the University of Otago in New Zealand, taking part in an outreach program to assist Māori children. “My parents migrated in 1995, so I found it an amazing turnaround from being an immigrant to having the opportunity to give back to the society where we were very welcomed,” Chae recalls.
This desire to help others was again sparked when Chae attended a Women in Dentistry event and heard the attendees talking about giving back to domestic violence survivors.
“Domestic violence could happen to any of us, so I really liked the idea of helping these women,” Chae says.
“I never had experience with domestic violence, but I do know of a few acquaintances who have, and it was very difficult for them to get out of that situation. The women who come through Healing Smiles must be ready to move on, so to ask for help is very courageous.”
As a prosthodontist, Chae mainly provides restorative consultations to Healing Smiles patients. “The majority of my patients have had all of their teeth removed, so we provide some kind of prosthesis, whether it will be a full or partial denture,” she says. “Many of them come into the clinic very scared and some are sceptical of why we want to treat them for free. But they are all so grateful at the end of the day, and I always get a lot of tears and big smiles at the end of treatments.”
There have been many satisfying moments as a volunteer, and Chae says every patient has her own story.
“I had a lady who went through extreme emotional domestic violence. She is very smart but never had the courage to pursue her dream of going to university,” Chae says. “She told me she didn’t deserve this and that – and it was almost like being a psychologist, encouraging her that she was worthy and that part of moving forward was to dream bigger than you think you can.
“Having new teeth motivated her,” Chae adds. “She applied for a degree at the University of Notre Dame – and has almost finished her master’s degree. Earlier this year she was telling me she is getting distinctions in her courses. Stories like hers motivate me and keeps me grounded.”
To other specialists thinking of volunteering, Chae says it only takes a bit of time, patience and a desire to give back – and you receive so much in return.
“Through volunteering I get to meet lots of different people,” she says. “I am very thankful for what I have, and it is empowering that I can help others; it gives me joy.
“If you have ever thought about volunteering, just give it a go. We are all very busy, juggling families, kids and work, but it doesn’t take a lot of time and it gives so much back.”
It was seeing her sister volunteer that first motivated Wendy to look for volunteering opportunities. “My sister is an engineer and needed to volunteer for extra credentials on her CV to apply for jobs,” Wendy says. “That was how her industry works, but for me who was doing health and science at the time, I just thought volunteering was a good idea.”
Wendy started volunteering at university with the guild, doing things like helping out with UWA Open Day – but it was during her second year of Dental School that she was introduced to CHAT (Children’s Health Aid Team), where she saw first-hand the difference that volunteering could make.
“CHAT goes to Vietnam, and as my parents are Vietnamese, I thought I could do the trip and also arrange a holiday. My parents were encouraging, so I signed up for a trip at the end of my second year.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she says. “You don’t see dental caries like that in children in Australia, even at OHCWA. It was hard work, you were sweating, it was humid, there was no nice dental unit. But there was always something you would have not seen or done at the time, especially as a second- year student.
“It was also amazing how the kids in these orphanages were aware that they were quite fortunate to have people come to help,” she adds. “They understood the value of getting this dental treatment. It was very rewarding, and I did the trip again with two friends in my third year. It was a great experience.” Back in Perth, Wendy continued helping CHAT with their advertising and marketing, although that has been stalled due to COVID.
“It has been a different kind of experience, reminiscent of OHCWA in terms of the kind of cases I would see there. It has been nice because since I graduated, I have been in private practice and most patients I see have beautiful white teeth, so coming back to these dental cases where you have to plan out a full mouth rehab has been rewarding and the ladies have been really grateful.”
Wendy has been seeing two ladies consistently since volunteering with Healing Smiles.
“I have been doing almost a complete clearance and slowly doing quadrant extractions on one of the ladies,” she says. “The first time I saw her she was really withdrawn and was dealing with being in pain constantly. I told her to try to stop smoking because I had done multiple extractions and there was a risk of dry socket and she said that she needed to smoke. The next time I saw her she had quit smoking. She is also less withdrawn; she hops in the chair and is ready to go.
“Seeing her demeanour change from being so withdrawn to quite motivated has been satisfying. To be able to get to the vision I have for her when she will be stable with potentially a new smile will be great.”
Wendy said volunteering is helping to keep her on her toes, so she doesn’t fall into the stagnant lifestyle of ‘work, home and social life’ and recommends volunteering to other recent graduates. “It has given me exposure to cases I might not have otherwise been able to see. As cheesy as it sounds, volunteering helps fills a hole in your heart.
“I got into volunteering thinking I am not doing much, or I am just one of many other volunteers and my contribution is very minor compared to someone with much more experience. So, I am always surprised when I see the impact that can be made for a patient.”
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