UBC Dentistry team Serves Penelakut First Nation

Dentistry student Cameron Garrett looks forward to seeing new and familiar faces. Photo by Martin Dee

Mention a small B.C. island during July and most people assume sun, sand and vacation.

For Cameron Garrett, the memorable times on Penelakut Island will revolve around patients. From July 7-10, the UBC Dentistry student – along with 23 other volunteers – will be donating his time and skills to the people of the Penelakut First Nation.

Penelakut Island is the former site of a residential school with a population of 350. To reach the nine-square kilometre island, one must take a ferry from Chemainus, a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Garrett explains that he jumped at the chance to volunteer again after being a part of the inaugural volunteer community clinic that took place last July.

“We were the first group of non-natives to be invited to provide healthcare on the island. We want to further develop that trust,” says Garrett, who is entering his fourth and final year in the doctor of dental medicine program this fall.

Last year, the clinic treated close to 70 Penelakut First Nation patients.

“One of the big things we wanted to do when we started this project,” says Garrett, “was to provide continuance of care. I’m really excited about seeing the kind of impact we had from last year.”

Penelakut Island teacher Karen Milanese, a key organizer for the clinics, says the community is keenly anticipating the team’s return – not only for dental work, but also for the warmth and kindness of the volunteers. “What the community really found impressive was how genuine and respectful the students are. They’re so welcoming.”

Similar to last year, the volunteers will be transporting all the necessary supplies and equipment to and from Penelakut Island. They will then set up a triage-style clinic in the elementary school gymnasium, using portable dental chairs, bottles of sterile water and air compressors to power up equipment such as dental drills. The volunteer team includes dental and dental hygiene students, professors and alumni from the Faculty of Dentistry.

If last summer is anything to go by, says Garrett, the mood will be relaxed and upbeat despite everyone working flat out for long hours. “There tends to be a good flow. Our mentors are jazzed because they’re sharing their knowledge and see how excited the students are about completing a procedure. And the patients are getting treatment that they wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.”

Of special value to the students are the large numbers of mentors on hand, adds Garrett. “There’s a high ratio of profs or dentists to students, so anytime we’re dealing with something new or have questions, they’re right there at our side.”

Part-time clinical instructor and UBC alumnus Dr. Gary Sutton says these experiences are vital for introducing students “to the real world beyond fixing teeth.”

“A mission like this bridges the isolation felt by the First Nations towards the profession,” says Sutton, who also volunteered last year. “Being invited back into this community builds on the trust in the friendship and it’s a different kind of dentistry. The whole family is involved and present during treatment.”

Treating family groups also helped students to understand more about generational patterns of oral health care or neglect, says Garrett.

“If the parents only have a few fillings than the children generally have good brushing habits.”

However, bad habits would be evidenced by rampant tooth decay among the adults and children. “It was the first time that I saw ‘bottle mouth,’” says Garrett, “which is the effect when toddlers are left to nurse for really long periods with a bottle filled with milk, juice, or worse case, soda pop. The sugars rot their baby teeth.”

Garrett says the team hopes its efforts will inspire greater numbers of dental missions for under-served populations in rural and remote communities throughout B.C.

He says, “It’s a brilliant idea because volunteers can easily commit to a four-day mission especially if the location is close to where they live and doesn’t require much travel time.”

The Penelakut Island community dental clinic is the brainchild of UBC alumnus Dr. Doug Nielsen. He brings extensive experience as one of the founders of the Vancouver-based Dental Mission Project, which provides portable supplies and equipment to dental professionals who want to organize volunteer clinics in Canadian and international communities.

To get involved or for more information about the community volunteer program, contact Dr. Bill Brymer, UBC Faculty of Dentistry, at: Sbbrymer@interchange.ubc.ca or dentalum@interchange.ubc.ca

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