Hooked on the dentistry, the community and the lifestyle
For over 10 years, the beautiful Thursday Island (Waiben) has been providing formative training experiences and plenty of adventures to final-year JCU Dentistry students on capstone rural placements.
Hailing from the Sutherland Shire in Sydney, Michael Boctor was excited for a completely new experience as he set off for Thursday Island in July to commence his 16-week placement. The Far North tropical island is worlds away from Michael’s suburban upbringing, but it didn’t take long for it to feel like exactly where he’s meant to be.
We recently checked in with Michael as he nears the end of his placement to hear about what he’s loved and what he’s learned from the experience, and the big question it’s got him asking himself as he prepares to graduate.
Set the scene for us, Michael, why did you choose Thursday Island as the preference for your final capstone placement?
Maybe I should lead with the dentistry-related response, but… I'm big on fishing! I absolutely love it. Everyone says the fishing is great on Thursday Island, so it was a big drawcard.
That said, I also knew the kind of training experience you get as a dentistry student here and that it would set me up well to enter the workforce next year. I liked the fact that you’re one of just two students at the placement site which means you get really focused, hands-on supervision.
Did the expectations meet reality?
They definitely have! There is such a good support network on Thursday Island. Our supervisor, Dr Michael Evans, is an awesome mentor. He has been a dentist for over 50 years, and he has given us plenty of attention and support.
Whenever Dr Michael is busy, I can go to the other dentist on-site, Dr Maria McGowan, and she is extremely helpful too. Dr Maria has been living here for over 30 years and is very knowledgeable. The guidance from both of these amazing dentists has been a highlight for me and they’ve shown me how rewarding rural and remote dentistry can be.
And the fishing has been as good as you were told?
So good! On weeknights, we head down to the jetty for shark fishing. They put up a really tough fight, you can get some awesome photos, and then we release them. On the weekends you’re out on the reef; fishing, spearfishing, crabbing, and diving. The locals are so inclusive of the JCU students, and they’re always more than happy to take us out to experience the beautiful Torres Strait.
So the community of Thursday Island has been very welcoming?
The community is super friendly. It’s to the point that if someone walks past you without saying hello it’d probably be considered very rude! The locals have made adapting to life on placement so much easier for me.
I’ve loved the relaxed lifestyle and it’s been a nice break from the busyness of city life. On Thursday Island, like Cairns, everything is so much more accessible. Back in Sydney, you’ve got to do at least an hour of travelling to get anywhere remotely close to the kinds of places you get up north. Here on Thursday Island, you can get anywhere within a three or four-minute drive. At the JCU accommodation, they’ve given us bikes, which have been great for exploring the island. It’s also been awesome meeting the other JCU students living at the accommodation – they have been such a good time and along with the locals, they will be friends for life!
How would you describe your personality and how it fits with a place like Thursday Island?
I can never forget this episode of the Steve Harvey show I watched a while back where he raves on about how “success is never a comfortable procedure”. Since then, I have actually found it more difficult to be content if I’m not pushing myself out of my comfort zone. So Thursday Island ticks all the boxes with plenty of experiences and adventures.
In the past, I have felt like I’m always the one pushing my mates, to say ‘let’s grab the boat, or let’s go for a fish, or do this or that’, however, here I have people encouraging me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise which is awesome.
What kind of cases have you treated or had exposure to during this placement?
You get a very well-rounded exposure to all aspects of dentistry. It’s been a very different clinical experience from my first capstone placement in Launceston, Tasmania. We get a lot of patients from the outer islands. It influences how you approach your treatments and planning because these patients are only able to visit every few months.
It is quite common to see badly broken-down teeth and extensive tooth decay as a result of poor oral hygiene and oral health education. As a result you get exposure to root canals, oral surgery, dentures, fillings, as well as your usual routine and paediatric dentistry.
From what you’ve seen on placement, how does dentistry differ in a place like Thursday, compared to what you might expect back home in Sydney?
The first thing I would say is that it’s unpredictable. You never know how many people are going to be walking through the door with toothaches or other issues, on top of the full load of patients booked in for the day. Normally the patients can be accommodated, but it means your day can get very busy!
The community are so appreciative of the treatment you're providing here. People know there’s a shortage of dentists, and they come from long distances to seek treatment. I think it’s added to my enjoyment of the clinical side of the placement, seeing how much these services mean to people. It’s fulfilling, and I think that this kind of environment makes a big contribution to long-term job satisfaction.
You get a good variety in terms of the treatments you provide for patients, which is great exposure as a dentistry student. There’s never a dull day for a dentist up here. Another bonus is once you’ve worked on Thursday Island for a while as a dentist, you can start travelling to the outer islands with a dental assistant. You get to spend a few days there in the community and provide treatment and oral hygiene education. It’s really special because these are islands that you cannot usually visit unless you are of Torres Strait Islander background, so having the chance to experience these communities is such a unique opportunity.
Has the placement contributed to you considering a career in a rural or remote setting like Thursday Island?
Before coming here, I didn’t have much exposure to anything like Thursday Island. That’s why I am so grateful for this placement because now I’ve been considering when would be an appropriate time to move here!
It’s made that big an impression on you?
Absolutely! I love the lifestyle and the type of dentistry you do here. You’re helping people who are so appreciative of what you're doing and you're serving communities that really need it. You get to travel by chopper to the outer islands and spend a few days there. It’s such a perfect blend of adventure and career opportunities.
So have you decided where you might go after graduating at the end of this year?
I’m in decision-making mode at the moment, and it’s difficult! I’ve been away from home for five years and I’ve hardly been able to get back for a visit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I even missed my sister’s wedding. So there is a pull to move back home. But at the same time…
"I think ‘what are the things I’m looking for?’ It’s this, here on Thursday Island.
I love the dentistry, the lifestyle, and the people."
Michael Boctor, Fifth-year JCU Dentistry student.
I know a decision needs to come soon. I’m really leaning towards working up here for a few years if I can and then home to spend a bit more family time. But if I did move away after working here, I reckon I’d be back again!
Does that take you by surprise? Heading to Thursday Island, you probably weren’t expecting to leave with the desire to pursue your career there!
I knew it’d be a great experience, but I definitely wasn’t thinking beyond that. Actually, everyone back home was wondering why I’d go to a place like Thursday Island! People said I should go to a bigger town or city, like Townsville.
But I thought, ‘when else am I going to experience this lifestyle so why not do it as part of my university degree?’ Now I’m saying I want to experience this for many more years to come!
I am really glad that I took this opportunity because I would never have otherwise had the exposure to this type of work and lifestyle, both of which have been a great fit for me.
What are your tips for other students coming to Thursday Island on placement?
Embrace the community and it will embrace you! Immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible; weddings, balls and other events are usual open to the community. Within a few weeks, there’s not going to be anyone who you don’t recognise. It’s such a tight-knit community and you’re bound to meet everyone down at the pub at some stage (musical bingo every Friday night is a really easy way to meet everyone) – it certainly brings everyone together.
Then on weekends, say yes to opportunities! People will invite you out to the islands to dive, camp, fish, hunt or even just enjoying a day out on the boat. If you meet the right people you may even get the opportunity to take out the quad bikes and explore the mines at nearby islands. It’s truly breathtaking to experience the beautiful land and reefs of the Torres Strait. Honestly, at times it feels like too much of a holiday!
With over 2,000 hours of hands-on clinical practice across a range of settings, our JCU Dentistry graduates are work-ready and passionate to make a difference in rural and remote health. Read more about the impact of the capstone rural placement from Sowmya’s outback adventure on placement in Mount Isa.
If you are a JCU Medicine, Dentistry or Pharmacy student and would like to share your placement experience, please contact us.