My summer of perpetual smiling

Bringing smiles to those who need them

Sometimes with new experiences comes the learning of new words. This summer I learned a new word – “externship.”

An externship refers to a job-shadowing during summer/spring break where one is taken through the day-to-day routines of a medical institution, company, or an organization. When I applied as an extern to the McGill Summer Clinic for Adolescents and Disabled Patients, I was expecting an experience similar to what I had witnessed during my previous three summers of volunteering back home in Sri Lanka with the Sri Lanka Dental Association (SLDA). I had worked previously with a variety of cases – from children effected by dental fluorosis in rural parts of the country to children who suffered from cleft lip or palette disabilities. But I realized that although the dentistry practiced in this case was more or less similar in its clinical approach, many things were different in my experience.

The McGill Summer Dental Clinic for Adolescents and Disabled Patients is part of McGill Dentistry’s groundbreaking effort to work directly with the Montreal community to provide free basic dental care to people who cannot access private care due to financial hardship. Held during July, the clinic runs at the Montreal General Hospital and offers free dental treatment to children aged 10 to 17, and to physically or intellectually disabled patients who are 10 or older. The treatment is provided by fourth-year dental students under the supervision of General Dental Practitioners.
Working with disabled patients who needed a varied spectrum of care and attention was a challenge. From holding the suction tube in varying angles to assisting them off their wheelchair support, I realized that every patient was unique not merely in terms of clinical manifestations but also in terms of their social needs.

The young kids I worked with were a different milieu altogether. I was fascinated by the type of patience and reassurance that went into keeping a six-year-old steady on a dental chair without an emotional outpour was something.

Before long, I connected the dots from my past experiences where I had seen my dad, who was a dental surgeon, act like a six-year old just to reassure the kid that they were on the same emotional level and that all was well. Thus, this rule of reassurance was indeed universal in nature.

The hours were long and rigorous. It required one to keep a perpetual smile which would dull the sound of drills and burs. Although undoubtedly exhausting, the look of satisfaction at the end of a treatment session when the patient looks into the mirror and sees the difference in those pearly whites is unparalleled. While I had done technically nothing to bring that smile across the patient’s face – I had only assisted the dentist to ensure the procedure went as smoothly as planned – my experience had led me to an epiphany. I realized that I wouldn’t mind doing this not just for a month in the summer, but in reality, for the rest of my life.

At the end of this physically tedious and emotionally draining month, I had shared with the dental students the feeling of looking into the mouths of children who had access to care only once a year through this clinic. Because of this, I learned to keep a straight face and make sure the patient knew that they were in safe hands.

I was eventually unofficially named as “the babysitter” by some of the dental students I shadowed. The moniker came the day that I was given the task of babysitting the child of a patient who was in great distress due to being detached from his mother, coupled with the disruption of his afternoon nap. That day I was thrown into the deep with a test of interpersonal skills I had never before experienced. I took the baby in a stroller for three hours around the clinic in sheer desperation to put him to sleep, and eventually, he did.

There are many inexpungible memories in my head from that month at the Montreal General Hospital. The other volunteers I worked with became my summer friends, and the dental students I shadowed, my mentors. But when all came to an end and we celebrated with a scrumptious dinner at La Caverne Grecque, one thing was certain: I was going to do this again next summer. I felt humbled to be part of a great institution that pioneered in providing access to dental care through summer clinics such as this one, to the underprivileged sectors of society that often remain forgotten.

This fascinating new word I had discovered, – ‘externship’, showed me what I wanted to do in life – be part of changing the world, one smile at a time.