Few of us would count going to the dentist as a life-changing experience. However, Tihema Nicol knows she’s changing lives when she brings her dentist skills to the people of Wellington at our partner charity DCM's Dental Service on Lukes Lane.
Tihema Nicol remembers an older lady she treated at the DCM Dental Service, just one of the many services DCM offers people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
“She was in such agony she couldn't wait to get in to the chair, which is the opposite of what people normally do!” The reason was the toothache she’d put up with for two years, having no ability to pay for dental care.
“She had tried so many things to deal with the pain, like crushing paracetamol into the tooth. But that didn’t work for long and would only work if she could get her hands on paracetamol. By the time she got to us we had to extract nine teeth, all in one go. They were so loose from gum disease they came out easily.
“Then she was painfree and just so thankful to have the work done, and done in an environment she knew and was comfortable in because she had often been to DCM, even if not to the dental clinic.”
DCM’s focus is on ending homelessness in Wellington. The charitable organisation supports people who meet the New Zealand definition of homelessness, or are at risk of becoming homeless – to find and sustain housing, to access a benefit and manage their money, and to connect to health services and other supports.
One man who was homeless was referred to DCM, and they were immediately able to arrange a much-needed dental appointment for him. He had a lot of emergency work done, and then went straight on to his first session with DCM’s housing team.
The organisation opened the dental clinic last year. Since then, more than 200 of the poorest people in our city have received life-changing dental treatment at DCM, thanks to professionals such as dentists like Tihema who volunteer their time.
“On a shift usually I’d get three or four patients a morning,” says Tihema. “I’ll give them all a dental check and then do as much work as I possibly can. Quite likely they haven't seen a dentist in years; some are transient so we may not see them again. So I have to do all I can while they’re in the chair.”
Tihema is Māori (Ngāti Tuwharetoa, Ngāti Whatua, and Ngāpuhi) and believes her culture helps her with DCM’s predominantly Māori taumai.
“I think it does help break down barriers. We’ll go into, ‘Where are you from?’ and usually we’ll find some connection. And I have an understanding of tikanga, the boundaries between patient and dentist, and the social norms.
“So for the younger generation I might use colloquial terms, drop in a couple of Māori words and have a joke. And for the older generation of Māori, they require respect – like any of the older patients – as they come from that era where you respect your elders. I might not joke around so much but I’ll talk about their children and grandchildren, where they’re from.
“If you have the understanding and have grown up Māori, you can relate back to experiences you've had within your own family. That helps with patients.”
For Tihema, who graduated Dental School two years ago, mixing her DCM shifts with paid work at a Kapiti Coast practice provides the perfect balance.
“We know dental health has a huge effect on your body. If someone’s put up with a low grade infection for years, that’s an affliction their body has to fight. There's a close connection between diabetes and gum disease and so much more. To have this health issue on top of what they’re already going through, it's hard. So I’m happy to help.
“I used to work at the dental clinic at Hutt Hospital and I miss the humanitarian side of dentistry. I’m lucky enough to love my job, and when you enjoy your job, getting paid for it is just a bonus. I know the work we do improves the quality of people's lives by a long shot.
“To be able to do this, and to be part of a team that supports the poorest people in our city to address not only their oral health but also a wide range of their other needs, is just amazing.”
Words by Lee-Anne Duncan of Community Comms Collective.
DCM would love to open up the dental chair far more often but needs more volunteers. If you are or know a dentist or dental assistant who would like to give their time at the DCM Dental Clinic, DCM would love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to donate to help DCM provide health services to people in Wellington who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, click below and choose DCM to receive your 1%, it only takes a few mins to get it going!