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Written By

Rachelle McCabe


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

7 August 2023

Related Study Areas

Ready to make a difference

JCU Dentistry Class of 2022 graduate, Sowmya Bolla, always had a passion for helping the less privileged. The opportunity to use her skills to overcome disadvantage in the Pacific Islands was a natural next step after graduating. With the support of her current workplace, Sowmya helped change lives and benefited from a life-changing experience of her own.

When Sowmya stumbled across a Facebook post from charity organisation Strong Island Foundation, calling for dentists to perform outreach work in the Solomon Islands, she didn’t hesitate.

“I immediately thought this is something that I’d love to do,” she says

“The main thing that drew me to dentistry was the fact that I would be able to work in areas or places where people are experiencing disadvantage, whether it be patients with low socioeconomic backgrounds or patients who are living in rural or remote areas.”

The opportunity to spend two weeks working alongside four experienced Australian dentists and a local Solomon Island dentist in underfunded and under resourced dental clinics fed directly into Sowmya’s passion.

Working mainly with paediatric patients performing extractions, cleans and checks, Sowmya says she learned a lot about herself and dentistry in that short time.

Sowmya Bolla with fellow volunteers and local dentists.

On-the-ground impact

Sowmya says in smaller villagers where parents were easily located, the dentists were able to perform extraction work on local kids, while in larger towns the dentists performed cleans and checks and triaged children to streamline wait lists for the local dentist.

“It was good to work alongside the local dentist, it felt like we did more than make a difference for that small amount of time, it will be ongoing,” she says.

Sowmya’s current workplace in Ipswich also supported the cause by donating much-needed dental instruments for the trip, which were distributed across provinces in Solomon Islands.

“There are only a few local dentists over there and they don’t have a lot of access to instruments or materials, including extraction instruments and items for restorative dentistry and even hand mirrors,” Sowmya said.

“It showed me how much I take things for granted sometimes. We visited a dental clinic in the Solomon Islands and found the dentist didn’t have handheld mirrors. That is an item every dentist uses and needs to use. Now he has them and can use them.”

The benefits of venturing outside your comfort zone

It was as much a personal journey as well as an opportunity for professional growth for Sowmya, who is the first to admit she tends to overthink and err on the side of caution.

“Going to Solomon Islands, the biggest thing I learned was that you only regret something if you don't do it. So never hold yourself back to any opportunities just because you're scared.

“For me, just going there was outside my comfort zone because I'm someone that likes to have more control of my life. Over there, I had to let go of everything. I had no signal, no power, no running water – those comforts we take for granted were not available. I learnt it's fine to not have control, to just be in the moment and enjoy it.”

Sowmya says she was surprised to find herself willingly taking part in a traditional festival whilst abroad – a festival that saw her running around with a stick in the dead of night while locals threw fish guts at her.

“So initially, when I heard it about this festival, I decided there was no way I was participating, but then I thought, I always take calculated risks, but I really need to step outside my comfort zone because this was a great way to integrate with the community.

“Looking back, I can’t believe I did it, but it really made me a little bit freer. I thought the trip was only going to help with my dentistry, but it helped me push the boundaries of my comfort zone as well.”

Sowmya Bolla and colleagues stand in front of a small plane.
A building in the Solomon Islands.
Left: Sowmya Bolla and fellow Strong Island Foundation volunteers. Right: A building in a Solomon Island village.

A passion for rural and remote communities from the start

The Solomon Island experience was a perfect way to follow on from Sowmya’s university study. A focus on rural and remote dentistry is embedded into the fabric of JCU’s dentistry degree with rural and remote placements forming an important part of the student experience.

JCU Head of Dentistry Professor Peter Thomson says JCU graduates are in high demand because the strong focus on regional and remote dental placements ensures they commence their careers job ready.

“There’s a very specific vision and mission for JCU dentistry, and that is to produce the best trained, work ready graduates for rural, regional and remote practice,” Prof Thomson says.

“I think everybody in the clinical academic team has signed up to that mission, which gives JCU dentistry a focus and collegiality which I've not come across in any other academic institute I’ve worked in.

“Our graduates are not just work ready, they are good communicators, they are good at managing patients and managing complex cases.”

Doing more with less dental equipment

From a clinical point of view, Sowmya found herself gaining confidence to make decisions, with the help of the experienced dentists she was with, without relying on the usually readily available technology and equipment.

“We didn't have X-rays, so we were looking in the mouth and just making a clinical judgement. It taught me to do dentistry with limited resources and to make appropriate clinical decisions based on environmental factors.

“These are things that you don't usually think about when you're here in Australia. I learnt from the other dentists, they helped me make these decisions and judgments.”

Leaning in and learning on the job

Sowmya is currently working at an Ipswich public dental clinic treating many patients from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We see a lot of intense cases where oral health may have been neglected for a range of reasons. From morning to afternoon, we treat emergency patients and then in the evening we do our follow ups, so it is quite a busy clinic.

“I feel very lucky to have this job in Ipswich because it is a public health clinic and dental care is very much needed here.

“As a new grad I am constantly learning, but I think I got lucky in the sense that the clinic I’m at has a lot of senior dentists on staff and two principal dentists are allocated to assist me when I need help, so it’s nice to have a mentor who I can call on.

“It is so common to come across a difficult case, so it’s nice to have that bit of guidance.”

But Sowmya says the transition from student to working dentist isn’t always smooth sailing.

“Going from a student to a new graduate is a change in lifestyle. It's a change in responsibilities as well. I think coping with this change can be quite difficult, I guess it's something you don't usually think about when you're graduating because you’re so keen to start working.

“There are so many avenues in dentistry, but sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming because you want to make the right choices.

“I’ve been talking to other dentists who have been through the same thing and that’s helped me quite a bit.

“Every day you learn something new, you have good days, but sometimes you have bad days, and by bad days I mean when you feel like you haven’t been good enough, because we set such high expectations for ourselves.

“But I think the biggest thing I'm learning is that it's okay. Any opportunity is a learning opportunity so you could be a better dentist the next day.”

As for final advice to the class of 2023, Sowmya says: “The biggest thing for healthcare professional students and new grads, just go out there and experience all you can. It’s not all about constantly working, it’s good to take a break like (the Solomon Island trip) to figure out what you want out of your profession.”

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