What a difference a decade makes

It’s a cold and crisp November Saturday morning. Dark and gloomy, the month is definitely living up to its reputation. As most of the city pulls the covers over their heads, Dr. Les Kalman heads to the University to prepare for a Dental Outreach Community Service (DOCS) clinic.

Soon the stillness on campus will be interrupted as he is joined by nearly 60 students, volunteer staff, hygienists, dentists and Schulich Dentistry alumni, some who have travelled from Ottawa, Chatham and Sarnia to spend their day providing free dental care to low-income families and individuals without dental insurance from London.

The same scene will unfold 12 times during the next 12 months as part of DOCS offerings. While some clinics will take place on campus others will be hosted in partnership with social service agencies at local community centres.

Founded with a desire to improve the oral health of people in the community who don’t have access to dental coverage or who encounter barriers to receiving dental care, DOCS is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018.

Dr. Kenneth Wright recalls being approached by a member of his church asking him to consider how free dental care could be provided to some of the new refugee and immigrant community members. Inspired by an outreach program at McGill University, he made a pitch to the School; Schulich Dentistry was ready to answer the call and DOCS was born. Initially the clinics were busy, but it was identified early on that to be effective and reach community members, DOCS had to leave campus from time to time and go to where people lived.

At about the same time, Dr. Les Kalman, DDS’99, had just returned from a dentistry mission trip to Ecuador, where he had spent a week traveling through the mountains and providing care to nearly 100 patients per day for a full week. Upon his return, Dr. Kalman wanted to share his experience and find a way to provide greater access to dental care to families without dental insurance and to the city’s disenfranchised communities.

With DOCS embedded into the curriculum for fourth year dental students and a decision to move it into the community, an opportunity arose for Dr. Kalman to become involved. He embraced it.

Today Dr. Kalman is the Director of the program working alongside the students, volunteers and DOCS founder – Dr. Wright. 

Under Dr. Kalman’s leadership of DOCS, students now attend several lectures, preparing them for their experiences, so they can better understand the cultural differences they will encounter, more fully explore how to engage with patients, and more fully appreciate the connection between oral health and total health.

With the combination of the in-class and clinic experience, Dr. Wright hopes that students will develop a sense of empathy that they will carry with them well after graduation and into practice.

Dr. Kalman has the same hopes, and believes that the experience offers students an opportunity to tap into different aspects of their role as dental professionals helping them to develop into a ‘whole dentist.’

“There’s so much to being a dentist,” Dr. Kalman said. “Through DOCS, students have an opportunity to interact with a wide range of patients, see a even wider range of dental needs, they learn how to promote well being, become aware of community agencies available for people in need, and they have an opportunity to support a segment of society that needs and relies on assistance."

Dr. Kalman adds that in some cases, students end up learning more just by listening, interacting and observing than from actually performing a dental procedure.

“I remember when we had our clinic at Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), and a young, frail woman came in with all her clothes in a plastic bag. She was so ill and appeared to have serious and complex needs,” he said. “I watched and the students really took in how the YOU staff thoughtfully and carefully worked with the young woman to determine her needs and get her safely off to the hospital. We didn’t even get to the dental part – but it was a significant learning experience for our students.”

A decade since DOCS was founded and still operating on a shoestring budget, its impact has been profound. The more than 160 volunteers and 650 dental students have partnered with 10 community agencies and hosted 159 clinics providing care to more than 2,156 community members.

Community dentists and oral surgeons also volunteer their time and services, providing complex and continued care for dozens of patients on an annual basis.

As the last of the 60 patients leaves the clinic, Dr. Kalman is exhausted but feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment. He’s enormously proud of the students for their commitment to the community and the staff, hygienist and dentist volunteers for their time. In the back of his mind, as he tidies up the clinic and heads home, is a one of the patients from the day’s clinic who just happened to be a former classmate from high school.

“I was born and raised in London, and I grew up on the lower economic side of things,” Dr. Kalman said. “To give back to my community, to make a difference in the lives of people when they really need it means a great deal to me.”

To learn more about DOCS or to inquire about volunteering, contact Pedro Alba.