“The life of an Oral Health Therapist on Waiheke Island”

Melanie Mitchell-interview from NZDHA Newsletter May 2019


NZDHA: Thank you, Melanie, for agreeing to take part in this interview. I can see from your work biography that you have an impressive history with winning many awards during your university years. You have also been in dentistry for a long time, starting out as a dental surgery assistant to then being the Practice Manager at the same office at Waiheke Dental Team. What was the driving force that made you decide to further your studies and become an oral health therapist? And where did you study? Please explain what life was like for you at university.

MM: Whilst assisting, I thought I would really like to work in the mouth. Dr Mike Stevens, my boss and other dentists Dr Bridget Heer and Dr Ko Vaasan who worked with us for a while were very inspiring. They gave me the insight and understanding of how to care for patients and sparked my life-long interest and passion for oral health. I knew that I wanted to do more than dental assisting and reception work. Mike encouraged me to apply to Akoranga AUT to do dental hygiene and therapy training. Mike didn’t have a dental hygienist at the time and he was the contracting dentist on the Island for the adolescent oral health scheme so he said once I was qualified I could come back to work at Waiheke Dental Centre as their sole dental hygienist and dental therapist. The thought of going to university really scared me. I hated schooling as a teen and I was not an academic but I had gone on to teachers college at the age of 19 to become an early childhood teacher. I enjoyed working with children which led me to move to Waiheke Island. I was a single mum in my second year at teachers college and finished that diploma part-time. I applied to AUT and was only accepted into Health Science which I did the first 6 months then continued with oral health elective papers for the rest of the year. I still worked part-time at Waiheke Dental Centre over this time. I was then accepted into the Oral Health program at AUT. I decided that I would make university similar to a workday. I would catch the same ferry each morning at 7.15am and back at night 5.30/6pm or sometimes later. And if I didn’t have a class, I would study in the library. On days that I had clinics and placements, I would catch the later boat back or stay over at Teena’s as we were mostly at the same placements. Occasionally I would take my car over on the car-ferry and drive to south Auckland and stay with family in Half Moon Bay. I really enjoyed studying and I worked hard. I felt that since I was a ‘mature student’ (haha) and the eldest in Class A, I could not let anyone down so it really consumed my life. I had to be dedicated and was so worried I would fail. Fortunately, I had a great group of fellow students that I studied with. Teena Olsen Smith, Erin Greene, Cindy Ryder and I supported each other. The girls gave me the nickname ‘Nana Mel’ and they still call me that. I remember thinking OMG some people in my class are close to my kids’ age. But I thoroughly enjoyed the class. The lecturers and clinical educators were so friendly and approachable and I felt at ease with asking questions and for advice. I was really interested in the topics and especially loved the practical sessions. I was fortunate that my children were older and could look after themselves. My eldest stepdaughter started university the same time as I did but she was in Christchurch and the other 3 boys were in senior high school which made it easier for me as they were quite independent. My husband was also very supportive.

NZDHA: You have lived and worked on Waiheke Island for many years. Please tell us what life is like on the island and what a typical day at work in the dental practice looks like? Do you treat both children and adults? And what sort of care and treatment do you provide for them?

MM: This June (2019) I would have worked for Waiheke Dental Centre for 20 years. I have always worked full-time including two late nights. As an Oral Health Therapist, I am so fortunate to be able to work with both adults and children. I do all treatments under the Oral Health Therapist scope of practice. I also see primary aged children under the SDS scheme when the school dental clinic is closed but this is only for emergency treatments. I like the diversity of patients. I especially love dental hygiene and periodontal treatments. My appointment book always has a mixture of treatments day to day which keeps it interesting. I also run two free dental hygiene clinics a year for Waiheke pregnant women which my boss kindly supports. I love being able to give something back to our Waiheke community.

NZDHA: I know you are very passionate about and have a special interest in adolescent oral health and you offer free teenage exams and treatment. Please tell us more about that.

MM: As part of the Adolescent Oral Health Scheme this service is free to our teenagers. I feel that adolescents need time and encouragement with their oral health. These children are our future and if we get them started on the correct road to healthy mouths and body then they will have a lifetime of good habits. I want them to have a positive experience and understand the importance of good oral health. I spend half an hour for their annual examinations, emphasising diet, brushing, flossing and explaining the dental caries process. I love seeing them from year to year and the progress they make. I always thank them for coming in and for being great patients.

NZDHA: You have worked at the same dental office at Waiheke Dental Team since before you were an Oral Health Therapist. Please tell us what it is about that practice, dentist and dental team that makes you such a loyal employee?

MM: Dr Mike Stevens bought the Waiheke Dental Centre in June 1999 and I applied for the position as dental surgery assistant after completing a dental assisting course the previous year. Prior to this, I was an early childhood teacher and I coincidentally had taught Mike’s kids. I have known his family for a really long time. Working with Mike is great. The practice was originally in Oneroa where it was a tiny area with two surgeries. It was just the two of us for several years. I have seen the practice grow and develop with part-time dentists and staff joining the team. Mike has always been supportive and we have a great team and a fun working environment. The practice moved and has been in Ostend for over 12 years or so now and Mike and I are the clinicians,  and he employs part-time dental assistants and reception. The dental assistants Dee, Nina and Shaela job-share and we back each other up. I don’t have an assistant but they often process my instruments and turn my room over which is a great help. These girls are amazing and work really hard. The practice is like a family, our receptionist Erica, who we call ‘mumzie’ helps make the place run smoothly and we all respect and care for each other. Mike and I discuss our patients’ treatment plans each day and I value and respect his expertise. The practice is a Family Dental Practice and we see generations of families. It’s a great feeling and we really get to know the patients well, they also get to know us and our own families.

NZDHA: In your final year of university at AUT, you were chosen to travel to Cambodia for children’s and adult’s dental treatment. Please tell us more about that.

MM: Oh that was a while ago now and was an experience of a lifetime!
It was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were part of The One to One Dental Charitable Trust and we worked with dental students from Melbourne. We visited the dental university in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) and helped the dental students there. We treated children in clinics where they came from surrounding schools. We provided basic treatments using glass ionomer cement. I cannot remember if X-rays were available. We visited an HIV orphanage and spent time playing with the kids. We also went to the slums and helped in the English classes. We visited a women’s prison but they would not let us treat their children so we got to assist some dentists treating these women. We travelled out to the villages with mobile equipment treating children from the schools. We had to take everything with us. We had limited gear and no electricity, we did hand excavations and hand mixed glass ionomer cement. It was very hot with over 40 degrees Celsius heat. We spent about 5 days at a blind and deaf school in Sean Reap, again we took all our supplies. We were lucky to have electricity so some chairs had hand-pieces which we had to rotate between us, students. We used a pressure steamer on gas to sterilise our equipment. The Cambodian people were so lovely and really appreciative. They always smiled and thanked us immensely. It was such a humbling and rewarding experience. On days off we did get to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields and S21 prison. One day I would love to go back and volunteer there again.

NZDHA: Are there any key points that you might have learnt along the way compared to when you got started as an Oral Health Therapist, and where you are in your career right now?

MM: OMG, I felt like when I first started it was like hitting the ground running. And sometimes it still feels that way! Every day I learn something new. This may be from patients and just how we do treatments. Every day, every person and every mouth is different and I feel that we can always learn from this. I think the university gave us the backbone and foundations but from then on we are always learning and progressing. After graduation, being on Waiheke Island and working in private practice at first, I felt quite isolated and missed the peer contact. So I attend courses and conferences as much as I can. I am very interested in the whole body and oral health. I especially enjoyed last year’s conference in Christchurch listening to and meeting Dr Steven Lin. I have read his book and I follow his posts/articles/webinars etc. I would like to continue on this pathway both personally and professionally. I also truly believe in patient-centred care and outcomes. I am a member of NZIMID and attend the annual conferences as well. There are always new research topics, materials and treatment choices to learn about. I find these very inspiring and enjoy the guest speakers.

NZDHA: What is the best part of your job?

MM: Everything! But mainly my patients. I can’t pinpoint the best part of my job. I love it all and have immense job satisfaction.

NZDHA: What are your favourite pieces of dental equipment you use and what treatment procedures do you enjoy doing the most?

MM: I love my intra-oral camera and prophy jet using EMS Airflow Classic or Perio Plus powder. I like to take before and after photos for my dental hygiene patients and they are so amazed at the difference. The intra-oral camera is a great educational tool. Using the prophy jet prior to scaling has made work so much easier. I attended one of  Dr Helen English’s hands-on course which totally changed my techniques. I enjoy mostly dental hygiene and periodontal treatments and love seeing the results and talking to my patients about these results. I love explaining to patients the connection between oral health and systemic health.

NZDHA: Are there some parts about being an Oral Health Therapist you would like to see get improved?

MM: I would like to see the age restriction removed for Oral Health Therapists. Waiheke Island has a diverse community and if we could treat young adults who otherwise could not possibly afford dentistry then we could prevent them early on from having ongoing oral health and systemic problems later on in life.

NZDHA: What are your hobbies or other passions you have outside of oral health therapy?

MM: Can I say Waiheke Wine? I enjoy spending time with our friends and family. Our family/extended family are extremely important to us. We have a son and daughter in law in Wellington and a daughter and son in law in Christchurch so we travel a bit to see them. We have two other sons and their partners on the Island so it’s great to go out to dinner and catch up with them too. My husband Alby and I enjoy going to concerts so we try to see some of the oldies. We also like going to rugby games together and support the Auckland Blues. I go to the gym 3 mornings a week at 6 am and go to yoga once a week which I really enjoy. I enjoy travelling as I never got to do this when I was younger. I went back to Cambodia for a holiday with my Dad and we also went to Vietnam. My husband and I like travelling to Fiji for total relaxation, nothing better than a book, a sun umbrella, cocktails and a pool. And I also have started going on walking tours with my friend. My first was 4 years ago and we walked the Amalfi Coast in Italy. That was a great experience and I loved seeing the country and culture this way. Last year we walked part of the Northern Camino from San Sebastian to Bilbao in Spain.  When time permits, I like to do the annual Onetangi Wharf to Wharf walk here on Waiheke Island. I’m involved with Waiheke Rotary and am the Treasurer for the club. It is very satisfying being involved with community projects.

NZDHA: And finally, what are the best parts about living and working where you do, on beautiful Waiheke Island?

MM: I am so lucky and love my life here on Waiheke. I cannot imagine living and working anywhere else. I have the best commute; it only takes me two minutes to walk to work. I love my surgery and many patients say what a lovely outlook there is from my room. It’s great to be part of a small community and yet so close to the city. You feel like you have an identity and wherever you are people know your connection to the community. Waiheke Island is relaxed. We don’t have the hustle and bustle like the big city of Auckland. Wherever you go on Waiheke there are beautiful beaches to see. The vineyards are amazing and I love some of the restaurants. Walking on the beaches is so relaxing and tranquil too.