DCM’s Dental Service gives “lives back”
Dental assistant Emily Kremmer has a full-time job and is in full-time study, but she still finds time to volunteer down at DCM, where she helps take away pain and rebuild lives.
Thursday is Emily Kremmer’s “free day” – at least it’s the day she’s not at her job with Wellington Periodontics or studying for her degree in public relations and communications. But this 22-year-old dental assistant spends most of her free day in the dental treatment room at DCM.
For 50 years DCM has been supporting Wellington’s most marginalised, with a focus on ending homelessness in the capital. In the first instance that’s about getting people without permanent housing into a home, then DCM supports them to stay there, to learn to manage their money and look after their new whare. But it’s also very much about addressing their physical and mental health issues, including their dental health.
That’s why in March 2016, in partnership with the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Dental Association, DCM began operating a fully equipped dental treatment room, staffed by dental professionals. While the dentists volunteer their time, the dental assistants may be paid or choose to volunteer. Emily – who began with a monthly shift in August 2018 but lately has been coming every week – says she’s happy to take no payment for her hours. “I really enjoy it, and it keeps me busy. I think I’d waste my day off. I work better with something to structure my day around,” she says.
The people DCM works with – who they call ‘taumai’, which means ‘to settle’ – usually have little opportunity to look after their teeth and gums, so nearly all who come into DCM’s dental service are in pain. “I love taking that pain away. As soon as you numb them up, you just see them relax,” says Emily. “And when you’re taken out that painful tooth or cleaned up their gums, they’re so grateful. One patient we had in the other day said, ‘I feel like a new man. You’ve given me back my life. I feel fantastic’, so it’s really great to feel you’re making a difference.
“They often ask if we’re paid, and when we say, ‘No, we’re just here to help you,’ they’re amazed. They feel like someone cares about them and values them.”
Much of the work they do, Emily says, is extractions and perio-work, with the odd filling, rather than root canals and crowns. “In general dentistry, you try to keep the real tooth as much as possible but here you need to be more realistic. There’s no point in doing a root canal if the patient can’t afford the crown. A lot of our patients here don’t have access to toothbrushes and toothpaste – although we offer them these things when they leave – so we help them in a way that’s best for them. There’s a lot of calculus build-up to scrape off, which is really satisfying!”
Aside from that, the Dental Service at DCM runs just like an ordinary dental clinic, she says. Emily works from 8:30am until 1:30 on days that suit her, and is very satisfied with the clinic. “Everything runs well here. It’s super well-labelled, so it’s quick and easy to find things. There’s a new steri-room and a surgery with everything we need – ultrasonic scalers, x-ray machines, very new sterilizer and bar code scanner to keep track of sterile items and equipment.
“The people here at DCM are also great. So smiley and welcoming. You never feel like you’re walking into someone else’s workplace. They treat us in the Dental Service like we’re one of the family. We take part in the daily waiata and karakia that begins each day, and they even give us lunch!”
While Emily works at DCM every week, most of the dentists she assists volunteer less frequently, so she values that she works alongside lots of different people. “I have learnt a lot and I’ve become really adaptable because I need to be able to work with anyone and deal with any situation. Because I meet so many dentists, I feel strongly like I’m part of the Wellington dentist community. I don’t have plans to move onto being a hygienist or dentist but if you’re a DA who has ambitions to become a dentist, there’s a real benefit to working here.”
What Emily does plan to do is get involved in dental health promotion or work for a not-for-profit organisation when she finishes her communications and marketing degree. “But I hope I’ll still be able do this because I really, really enjoy it.”
An obvious thought might be, isn’t it a bit smelly working with people who live in less than ideal conditions? “Sometimes, a bit,” she answers. “But you get smelly people in private practice too. And their stories are so interesting. While some are reserved and want to get out the door as soon as they leave the chair, some are really chatty and you learn all sorts of things about them. You meet so many people you’d never meet in your normal life.”
And a really good thing – they don’t complain. “In private dentistry people often complain a lot about any discomfort, but these people don’t. I think they’re used to a level of discomfort and they’ve all been living with pain for such a long time that their tolerance and resilience is high. And again, they’re just so grateful for your help so they sit in the chair and let you do your job. I haven’t heard a complaint from anyone since I’ve been here.”
Emily says it’s definitely changed the way she sees people sleeping or begging on the street. “Especially if I see them drinking. One patient said to me, ‘I’ve been drinking to manage the pain’. Now if I see someone drinking, I think it may be because they’ve got a sore mouth, or toothache, or gum disease that’s not manageable.”
In all, Emily Kremmer highly recommends other dentists and dental assistants offer their time at DCM’s Dental Service. “It’s very easy to work here. You give whatever time you have, whenever your want – once a month, or even less if that’s all you can do. You’re given a full orientation and lots of support while you work here.
“What we do at the Dental Service is humbling and rewarding. And – at the heart of it – we do really good dentistry.”