Not many dentistry students decide to travel across the world to re-connect with the tutor who supervised their first tooth extraction.
But when Julia Hurry, a final-year dentistry student at prestigious King’s College, London, was given the opportunity to undertake an elective placement, one destination immediately sprang to mind – James Cook University, where her former tutor, Dr Victoria Mellish, is now Head of Oral Surgery.
“When I was a third-year student, I did my first-ever extraction with Dr Mellish, who was my Oral Surgery Clinical Supervisor, literally just before she moved to Australia,” Ms Hurry recalled.
“I enjoy oral surgery, so I got in contact with her earlier this year to see if there was any chance of doing a placement with her at JCU. I thought it would be a great opportunity, and it was. Seeing her again was like completing the circle. It was lovely.”
Ms Hurry was raised in a small Scottish village, but London has been home to her since she enrolled at King’s College in 2014. During her two-week JCU placement, she relished the contrast between her high-rise campus in the bustling English capital and the airy JCU Dental School on the verdant Smithfield campus, near Cairns.
“Everything's so nice and modern, with light and glass,” she said. “It was quite striking arriving at JCU and seeing all the greenery.
“Our university is the polar opposite. We occupy a tower more than 30 floors high, right in the centre of London, next to the Tower Bridge.”
The differing size of student cohorts had also led to some differences in clinical training practices, she observed.
“King’s College has 160 students in our final-year cohort,” Ms Hurry said. “They are then split into four groups and divided further into much smaller classes on specialty clinics. The JCU Dental Clinic however accommodates a whole-year group of 80 students, where the students treat patients holistically rather than by dental discipline.”
Both King’s and JCU students learn how to adapt to working independently and in pairs. Ms Hurry, enjoys having a partner by her side. “Not only for the extra set of hands while treating a patient, but for their advice.” she said. “I also think it teaches you how to build good working relationships.”
Dr Mellish agrees. “Dental students at JCU and King’s gain a vast number of hours treating patients on the clinic, where they learn from their supervisors and from each other.
“At JCU, our aim is to equip our graduates to practise anywhere, including rural and remote regions, where they need to be ready to work in challenging environments and be prepared to think on their feet.”
The King’s College student also encountered a different approach to continuity of care in the JCU dental training program.
“Dentistry students at JCU will see the patient pretty much throughout their whole journey, whereas King’s College students direct patients to the different specialities. We have set days for set types of dentistry,” Ms Hurry said.
“We don't get to do continuation of care until fifth year, when we can do pretty much all the specialities during our clinical days.”
Ms Hurry spent her fortnight shadowing Dr Mellish; attending her lectures on topics such as facial trauma and preventing complications with dental extractions, and watching her in action, tutoring fourth-year students extracting teeth in the JCU Dental Clinic.
She also had the opportunity to flex her own skills creating emergency dental splints in the state-of-the-art simulation clinic, which was “really good fun”.
Her social life was not neglected either.
“I was lucky enough to be at JCU over the weekend that the Dental Ball was held,” she said. “It was such a good opportunity to get to know the other students. Perfect timing. The JCU Dental Student Association Social President, Renee Aitken, invited me to spend my second week with her. So I felt really integrated in dental life there.”
Dr Mellish said both King’s College and JCU dental students were encouraged to broaden their horizons through overseas placements.
“They are encouraged to experience dentistry abroad; learning how to adapt to different environments, improving their cultural awareness and importantly, building life-long friendships along the way,” she observed.
After completing her placement at JCU, Ms Hurry travelled down the Queensland coast to Brisbane to visit relatives. Then she flew home to embark on her final, intense year of study.
“I think I will have just one day a month off, over the next year,” she predicted.
But dentistry is her vocation.
“It sounds such a cliché, but I've always been a little bit interested in teeth,” she smiled. “I was never the kind of child that my mum had to force into brushing my teeth. I was always there, ready to brush them.”
Her own family’s drastic dental solutions have also played a role in fostering her professional passion.
“I blame it on my grandma and great-aunt, because when they were younger, they had all of their teeth taken out,” Ms Hurry said wryly. “Back in the 1940s, if you had one tooth causing you pain, you were encouraged to get them all out. People used to gift a full mouth clearance as a wedding present.
“So from a very young age, I was used to them having false teeth. I would ask them to click out their teeth, so I could look at them.
“It’s completely different to the kind of dentistry we practise now,” the dentistry student observed. “It’s a caring profession, where we are all focused on the minimum intervention principles that now lead dentistry and the individual needs of patients.”