For National University of Singapore’s (NUS) alumna Melissa Guay, her dream is to bring dental care to patients with special needs, right to their doorstep.
This dream may be unorthodox to most, but Melissa is not your average dentist. Armed with a Masters in Special Care Dentistry, Melissa’s forte is treating patients with multiple or complex medical conditions, as well as those with physical or learning disabilities.
Motivated by the belief that quality dental care should be available to everyone, the 28-year-old graduate of NUS Dentistry explained: “They may have a lot of barriers that stop them from coming to us: financial, medical, or even physical.”
Treating medically-complex patients requires dentists to possess extensive knowledge on medical conditions and their impact on dental treatment. Melissa explained that patients with disabilities require additional time in the dental chair. On top of that, she emphasises preventive treatment due to their greater susceptibility to tooth decay.
Melissa’s affinity with Special Care Dentistry started during her time in NUS. First exposed to the specialisation during a course module, she was taught not only to be a clinician, but a “clinician with heart”.
Learning that there was more to dentistry than just drilling and filling teeth, Melissa realised that she could lend her clinical skills to those with limited access to dental care, or use her experience to change policies that impact the wider community. She reflected: “It was an eye-opening experience. I realised that dentistry can make a difference to the community.”
While surviving dental school was not without its challenges – students had to manage their own patients while juggling laboratory work in the latter half of the course – Melissa is relieved that she had gone through the rigours that prepared her for her career today.
With the onset of an ageing population in a technologically-advanced world, Melissa advocates the need for specialised dental care. As the elderly are keeping more of their teeth than before, treatment modifications are often necessary, especially since medical conditions or medications may complicate treatment.
She said: “With the expected silver tsunami in Singapore, I believe it is crucial that all dentists are equipped with the knowledge and skills required to manage the oral health of the geriatric and special needs population.”
Melissa’s fiery passion for special needs patients grew during her two years in the primary care setting after graduation. Exposed to patients from all walks of life at the polyclinics, her experience made her realise that dentistry could really make a difference to people’s lives.
“When I treated these patients, I realised that they had only been receiving piecemeal dentistry. It struck me then that there was a need for specialised, holistic care, and I felt that I really wanted my career to mean something more than the usual drill and fill,” said Melissa.
That is when she became determined to better equip herself in managing such patients. Granted a scholarship to pursue Master of Science in Special Care Dentistry by National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP), she spent a year at University College London’s Eastman Dental Institute.
Since returning home, she has been helming NHGP’s Woodlands Polyclinic Dental Services as Dental Surgeon in-charge. From mentoring young dental officers to providing assistance to difficult or medically-complex patients, Melissa’s typical work day encompasses a myriad of clinical and administrative undertakings.
Asked about memorable patient encounters, she cheerily recounted an experience with a patient with autism who refused to even sit in the dental chair during her first session two years ago. “I remember how she was very averse to touch initially and did not let anyone go near her. But after a few sessions with her, she actually came up to me and gave me a hug at the end of the session.”
She added: “As you journey with these special needs patients, every little moment, as they warm up to you, is significant. It is a step towards treating them and helping them feel better. It is these instances when they start responding to you that makes my job meaningful and reaffirms my choice to pursue special care dentistry.”
Beyond work, Melissa reaches out to the less fortunate abroad, looking to provide relief, tooth by tooth. She went on a mission trip to Nepal in 2012, and after witnessing families who travelled for days to get dental treatment, it struck her that there was a need for dental treatment in developing countries.
“Our seemingly small contributions can actually make a difference to the lives of these individuals who otherwise have no access to dental care.”
In May 216, she travelled to the urban slums in the Philippines for a week, where she, together with another dentist, conducted free dental extractions for close to a hundred patients daily.
With eight such trips under her belt, Melissa is just beginning her mission of changing the world one tooth at a time.