Volunteering at St Pat’s has opened Drs Amanda Lau and Michael Nguyen's eyes to the world of homelessness and social disadvantage – and they encourage other dentists to step forward to make a difference.
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Dr Amanda Lau had her first taste of volunteering on a trip to Vietnam several years ago, which she found hugely rewarding. However, with COVID curtailing her plans to continue volunteering overseas, Amanda began looking for opportunities closer to home.
“I was looking at the volunteering opportunities on the ADA website to find something suitable that I could get involved with, and soon after I came across an article about St Pat’s receiving a grant,” she recalls. “It was something that I thought I could work into my busy schedule, so I got in contact with them towards the end of 2020.”
Amanda now volunteers at St Pat’s once a month. “It’s opened up my eyes to the world of homelessness and financial and social disadvantage and made me realise that, especially with the effects of COVID, a lot of these people are regular people who have had jobs and homes, but due to unfortunate circumstances, have found themselves unable to afford rent or the basics,” she says.
At the clinic, Amanda does a lot of extractions, but also restorations, exams, dentures and the odd root canal treatment – and says the majority of patients are thankful and really appreciative. “A lot of them come in quite nervous but leave pleasantly surprised at how painless the procedure was, and are really happy to be out of pain,” she says.
Amanda says there have been many satisfying moments. “The very first patient I saw at St Pat’s was a man who was extremely grateful and said I was the first person who had given him attention,” she recalls. “He was about to go for some interviews and said that by fixing up his teeth, he now had confidence to find a job and get back on track.
“There was another woman who had been a victim of domestic violence and she had been in a few times to have a front tooth extracted that had been causing pain, but didn’t have the courage on the day,” she adds. “On the day she saw me, her upper lip was really swollen, and on discussing with the nurse, we thought it was a result of being punched, as she had been in the previous week with a swollen eye. After spending time patiently talking her through the procedure (and a lot of swearing on her part!) we managed to get the tooth out, along with a lot of pus. I couldn’t believe all that lip swelling was from the infected tooth!”
Being able to alleviate people’s pain is wonderful, but for Amanda, what she enjoys most about volunteering at St Pat’s, is being able to spend time chatting with people and hearing their stories.
“A lot of people are open about their struggles, and it’s nice to be able to share in that and give them some encouragement,” she explains. “It’s also really nice to be able to give treatment for free and not have to worry about patients not being able to afford the treatment.”
Amanda encourages other dentists to get involved at St Pat’s. “There is absolutely no pressure to commit to a regular schedule, and the clinic is well-equipped, and the staff are really friendly,” she says. “There are also some specialists and hygienists who volunteer.
“If anyone is unsure about it and wants to have a chat about what is involved in a typical day, I’m happy to answer any questions (and I’m sure the other volunteers will too) – just get in touch with the clinic.”
“I always wanted to volunteer,” Dr Michael Nguyen says. “There are a lot of groups that travel overseas but I never had that luxury with a young family and a practice. I contacted Dr Dominic Longo a few years ago and he mentioned something was being set up, but I fell off the radar. Then, by chance, last year someone put me in touch with ADAWA, and Andrea Paterson replied asking if I would like to volunteer at St Pat’s.”
Although he hasn’t been at St Pat’s for long, the experience so far has been very rewarding. “You are directly involved in the community and helping people,” he says. “Day-to-day, I’m at a private practice where most people are quite affluent, so you don’t get to see the other facet of the industry.
“At my practice, some people will be making the decision of whether they should get a veneer or change their smiles. At St Pat’s you see patients that wish just to be out of pain, to eat, or to look presentable to get a job.
“Helping these patients makes me feel valuable because this is what I’m trained to do. I get back much more than I give; you go home and feel like you have done something worthwhile. The patients at St Pat’s are fantastic, they are very grateful and appreciate everything you do. Since I started at St Pat’s I really feel there is a sense of purpose there, an inner peace. It’s hard to describe because I’m not a spiritual person, but there is a fulfilment. I’ve also been inspired by many other volunteer dentists who have been there for so many years.”
Over the years, Michael has been involved in other dental volunteering efforts – his practice hosted a Dental Rescue Day, and also loans its clinical space to treat Healing Smiles patients. “I wish I knew about this type of thing years ago. On a weekend our clinical space is just sitting there and not being used, so being able to contribute it is great.”
Michael says his staff are very giving. “During COVID, staff were reaching out to elderly patients and volunteering to go shopping for them,” he says. “None of that was my initiative, but things members of my staff did themselves,” he says. “Collectively, we always think about what we can do for the community. We have also seen six or seven patients from CARAD – the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees – and will fit them in during lunchtime, when we can. One of our nurses is also liaising with the Ukraine refugee community to see how we can help.”
What Michael enjoys most about volunteering is the immediate impact you see. “Getting a patient out of pain and being involved in the community, you feel like you’re giving something back rather than just taking,” he explains. “It gives you a different perspective of the world.
“I want to do my bit and I’m trying to teach my kids to do the same,” he adds. “I have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. I cannot tell my kids to be kind, be charitable and be humble and then do nothing myself.”
To other dentists thinking about getting involved, Michael highly encourages it. “You will feel quite fulfilled – this is why we do dentistry in the first place,” he says. “It isn’t just about bringing bread home and providing for your family, but it is the broader picture.
“Charity begins at home,” he adds. “For me, as a refugee, when I came here, we were given a lot of opportunity. We were supported by the community and even though we didn’t speak a word of English people welcomed us and were very patient with us. I think my generation owes giving back to Australia at large. I feel good giving back the kindness that was given to me when I was young.
“We are all busy. Today I didn’t have time to reply to any emails. But as busy as you are, you can always give one or two hours. When we did the Dental Rescue Day it felt good and it was a big event to look forward to, but then it was over, and I wanted to do something regularly.
“It’s like exercise; you don’t want to go to the gym once for three hours – you want to do something sustainable. Something sustainable for me is fortnightly at St Pat’s – there’s always time to give back.”
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