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My First Filling


Hussna Khan


I didn’t just harper on about wanting to help people because I thought it was what my interviewers wanted to hear. I truly felt that as a dentist I could meaningfully impact lives whilst enjoying the stability and security that comes with the job. But now I have found myself flirting with the idea of pursuing something else, something ‘more meaningful’.


As anecdotes go, for most of the two decades I’ve lived, I categorised dentists as judgmental, patronising and self-righteous. This was probably in part, a result of my own insecurities. My teeth weren’t great, but my dentist could have been. And so, with the decision to pursue dentistry came a promise to myself that I would never let a patient feel the way I did when visiting the dentist. I would be warm, I would educate and encourage, but I would do it from the heart. Except then I found myself on the opposite side of the table.


I imagine most people don’t forget their first restoration as a very early clinical milestone. But I won’t forget mine because it was the worst filling my patient had sat through in 40 years. He revealed this after my clinician explained to him how beautiful a job I had done. As an 80-year-old with severe neck pain, merely sitting in the chair made him very uncomfortable. Nociceptor activation probably makes us all grumpier and a bit merciless and I reminded myself of this during that moment. I took a steep breath, pushed back the tears and got on with it. I smiled, listened and then walked him out. Now I could finally indulge in thoughts of my incompetence. How I was so terribly in the wrong place, pursuing the wrong career and wasting everyone’s time.


But all it took was some perspective. I wasn’t going to let this be the reason I consider an alternative career path. Yes, it warranted reflection, but I would win him over. I called him the following Monday. He was happy with his filling. His neck was still a problem. There was some consolation.


When we talk about putting patients first we often neglect that to truly act in their best interest is to remain steadfast in our duty of care, especially with the mildly ‘difficult ones’. Only then, our principles of compassionate care are truly tested. Because it’s easy to be nice when other people are nice. And at the expense of sounding like a preacher, it wouldn’t be worthwhile if it was easy.


If an appointment has finished but your sense of fulfilment remains absent, remind yourself that there is more to this. Exert yourself. I don’t mean at the expense of your well-being. Oftentimes romanticising burnout and unwavering selflessness can be detrimental to the culture of patient care. Because yes, we cannot control everything, but we can try.


Even as a dental student in your early clinical years, you are valuable. Your role is significant and the power of your approach and your actions extends further and deeper than you realise. Let each encounter weave new strengths into you, your capacity to be better is infinite, don’t forget that.


Every step doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be forwards. These burdens have been granted to us because we are capable of handling them. We make change through listening and telling. We nurture relationships with our patients, and the frequency of our interactions should make us the healthcare professionals at the forefront of the NHS compassionate care values.


Be confident in what you know but also in your ability to learn what you don’t. It will come. Each patient will teach you a little bit more. Yes, proficiency in the sciences to understand diseases is vital but equally important is proficiency in the acts of caring for the people affected by them. Have no notion of caring for and serving people in halves. Go all out for them. This shouldn’t be a surplus to requirements. It is a requirement.


Don’t let the cruel days encumber your desire to do what you set out to. And re-read your personal statement if you find yourself forgetting what that was.

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