Sisters on a mission to give back

Photography of the sisters Nehal and Heba Al Tarhuni
By Crystal Mackay, MA ‘05

Sisters Drs. Heba and Nehal Al Tarhuni remember the feeling as the lights flickered off and they heard the silence when the electricity died in the middle of a tooth extraction.

They could smell the open sewage from the trenches outside the building where they worked, and felt the sweat trickle down their backs as they continued their work without proper equipment, and now, no electricity.

They remember the feeling as they looked in the eyes of their terrified young patient, and Heba put a calming hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

The sisters often reflect back on this summer spent providing dental care and conducting research in a refugee camp in Lebanon while they were students. There, they worked with limited supplies, spotty electricity and no anesthetic, and the young patients they were treating had rarely, if-ever seen a dentist before.

“It was supposed to be a transitory refugee camp, but people had been living there for decades,” recalled Heba. “They were extremely dental-phobic. The only dentistry they had exposure to was this idea that after being in pain, you were taken slightly out of pain only by inducing more pain.”

Nehal, who was a Schulich Dentistry student at the time, completed extractions, restorative treatment, and fillings. While Heba, who was still pursuing her undergraduate degree at Western University, assisted with triage, and dental and oral hygiene education and instruction.

“We helped children to be close to the dentist again, and accept dentistry as a means to restore their health, rather than a scary thing they have to do,” said Heba.

The sisters, who are Schulich Dentistry alumnae and practise dentistry together in Dutton, Ontario, were also refugees themselves as children, and say that summer had a major influence on their perspective and their dentistry philosophy.

“It really influenced my approach to dentistry for kids – I realize now it’s not about the filling you are going to do, it’s about how you are going to approach your young patients as little humans,” said Heba.

For Nehal, it cemented her desire to practise in a rural community in order to provide care in an underserved area. “Working in the refugee camps and seeing how tough the situation is for others, really put things into perspective from both a personal and professional standpoint,” she said.

The dental clinic where the sisters practise is the only one in Dutton, a town about half an hour outside of London with a population of less than 5,000. After owning several of her own practices in rural and urban settings, Nehal took over the Dutton practice from a dentist who was semi-retiring after two decades in the community.

“It was important for him to find someone to take over his practice who would take care of the patients that he’d cared for for twenty years,” said Nehal. “In a small town setting, you get to know your patients well and you are connected to the community in a really important way.”

The two dentists spent most of their childhood in Saudi Arabia as Palestinian refugees before immigrating to Canada in their mid-teens. “The doors opened up for us when we arrived in Canada – if you study and work hard here, you can get where you want to go,” said Heba. “But we don’t ever forget where we came from. Giving back just comes naturally to us.”

The sisters contribute to their community in numerous ways. They sponsor the local soccer team, are involved in community events like the Santa Claus parade, and have set up a scholarship for local students who are pursuing careers in dentistry.

They also volunteer their time as part of the Dental Outreach Community Service at Schulich Dentistry.

At their Dutton office, once a year they offer a free dentistry day to provide treatment to those who don’t have dental insurance or who can’t afford to pay.

“When I first started here, the community didn’t know me, but they welcomed me, and I don’t take it for granted that the patients here trust me with their teeth,” said Nehal. “This is one important way I can give back with the set of skills that I have."

The sisters look forward to continuing to work together to serve the Dutton community.

“Nehal has been an incredible role model for me,” said Heba, the younger of the two sisters.

“She had a lot to live up to,” laughs Nehal in response. “But on a serious note, I have learned so much from her as well. She’s a great dentist. Her patients love her, and I hope I’ve been a positive influence in her career.”