Good sports

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dentists volunteering around Australia at sporting eventsThere’s a grand tradition of dentists volunteering their time and skill at sporting events right across Australia. Frank Leggett reports.

The crowning jewel of Australia’s volunteerism was at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The original group of volunteers numbered just 500 people but quickly grew to the incredible figure of nearly 47,000. There’s no doubt that the thousands of Australian volunteers was one of the key reasons the Sydney Olympic Games was labelled ‘the best Games ever’.

Today, the spirit of volunteerism is alive and well in Australia, particularly among those in the dental profession. Large numbers of dentists, nurses and hygienists donate their time and skill, here and overseas, to improve the oral health of thousands of people.

One way in which dentists are really making a difference is by volunteering at a variety of sporting events. You’ll find these professionals at everything from children’s weekend rugby to the Commonwealth Games to World Championships.

When it comes to the Olympic Games, the host country traditionally provides the vast majority of volunteers. At the Rio Olympics taking place in August and the Paralympics in September, thousands of Brazilian volunteers, including dentists, will be on hand to give help wherever it’s needed.

Getting caught up in the spirit

One dentist who volunteered at the Sydney Olympics was Dr Peter Woodruff of Belmont Dental Group in Geelong, Victoria. “I got a bit caught up in the Olympic spirit and two years before the event, I saw an ad in a newspaper asking for volunteers,” Dr Woodruff recalls. “I actually put down dentistry as my third option after triathlon marshal and drug tester. About three months before the start of the Games, I received a phone call asking if I wanted to volunteer as a dentist. I jumped at the opportunity.”

While Dr Woodruff was expecting to deal with a lot of trauma cases, the reality was somewhat different. “There was a well set-up clinic with six chairs right in the middle of the village,” he says. “The whole point of the clinic was to get athletes from developing countries dentally fit. Word soon got around and we were flat out. We fixed a lot of cavities and did a few extractions but it was obvious that the standard of dental care among these competitors was much lower than that of our own athletes.”

It is interesting to contemplate the effect dental health has on elite athletes. While some of Dr Woodruff’s clients were coming third or fourth at various Olympic events, there could be no doubt that their results would have been better if they had been dentally fit from the outset.

“It’s a great way to contribute to society. It also opens your eyes to what’s out there.” – Dr Vinny Wang

“I found the whole experience very worthwhile,” says Dr Woodruff. “We were doing good work and patching up people that really needed help. We were also getting to mix with the best athletes in the world and if you enjoy sport, that’s a fabulous experience. An unexpected benefit was the opportunity to watch some of the events and to receive tickets to the closing ceremony.”

A few years later, Dr Woodruff also volunteered for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. This time only two chairs were in operation but the philosophy was the same—trying to get athletes from developing countries up to the same standard of dental health as athletes from developed countries. He has also applied for the Rio Olympics but doesn’t hold out much hope. “I’m pretty certain there’s no shortage of dentists in Brazil who can do what I can do,” he says with a laugh.

Special talents

Dr Pinky Singh of Showground Dental Care in Castle Hill, New South Wales, volunteered to be part of the Special Smiles program at the 2013 Special Olympics Asia Pacific Games in Newcastle. The Special Olympics provides opportunities for people with an intellectual disability to stay active and achieve a personal best.

The Special Smiles program was part of a larger health screening initiative available to all athletes. “We didn’t actually do much treatment-wise,” says Dr Singh, “but every participant had a dental check-up. There were six dentists working and it was all very quick. Everything was disposable so nothing needed to be sterilised.

“After their dental check-up, the athletes would move to other stations for further health checks covering such things as Body Mass Index, bone scanning, and a general medical check.”

While the dental check-up simply identified problems and made recommendations, the dentists also took the time to give instruction on proper oral health techniques. The athletes came from all around the world and, once again, those from developing countries tended to have more problems.

It was a busy time with the dental team seeing about 130 patients each day of the event. One thing that stood out for Dr Singh was the positive attitude of the athletes. “They loved the process,” she recalls. “Most of them were teenagers, and they would happily come to their dental appointment and generally take a few photos. I’ve always worked in private practice and had never done something like this before. It was so fulfilling, I told an organiser to let me know if they ever need help again.”

Dr Vinny Wang of McLennan Street Dental in Mooroopna, Victoria, also volunteered for the National Special Olympic Games.

She has a long relationship with volunteer work having established a volunteer dental event providing dental aid to low socio-economic populations in Melbourne, and helping to run a mobile dental clinic in outback Queensland.

“I was searching volunteer options on the ADA website and the Special Olympics was one of the listings. I had been involved with helping special needs children at high school so it appealed to me immediately,” she says now.

The Special Olympics uses these events so the athletes get a fairly complete health scan. They also undertake similar programs at district and state level competitions. Dr Wang recalls, “We gave each competitor a dental check-up and they then moved onto other stations such as podiatry and optometry.”

Dr Wang recommends this sort of volunteering for all dentists.

“It’s a great way to contribute to society,” she says. “It also opens your eyes to what’s out there. You get to experience cases that you may never come across in general practice. I’m certain it makes you a better dentist.”

The gift that keeps on giving

Dr Mark Foster of Castlegate Family Dental Care in Woodvale, Western Australia, has an impressive resumé when it comes to sports volunteering. He’s helped out at the Sydney Olympics, the World Swimming Championships and the Rugby World Cup. In addition to this, he has been volunteer team dentist to the Perth Glory (soccer), the Perth Wildcats (men’s basketball) and the Perth Breakers (women’s basketball—now the Perth Lynx). Now he’s team dentist for the Western Force rugby team.

“These are all voluntary positions without any payment,” says Dr Foster, “though I’ve always liked rugby and I get a pretty decent seat to watch the Western Force play. I was also a very keen swimmer so being part of two World Swimming Championships held in Perth was great. Initially, they weren’t going to ask a dentist to take part because they could foresee no dental problems. However, during the competition I saw two to four athletes each day. Even though I treated patients from all the different swimming disciplines, I saw a lot of water polo players. It’s a pretty tough game.”

There is a difference in treating players who train week in and week out, and athletes training for an elite event who want to peak on a certain day. “There has been quite a lot of research that has identified a relationship between physical stress and immunosuppression,” says Dr Foster. “Often athletes at the Olympics or World Championships have a slight suppression of their immune system and this can have a devastating effect. There was a diver from China who had some dental decay in a molar that was not causing her any real problem. However, when she arrived at the World Swimming Championships, she had done a lot of training, her immune system was depressed and she was jet lagged. She ended up with a large facial swelling and was admitted to hospital for intravenous antibiotics. She was unable to compete.”

Dr Foster would also like to see more dentists get involved with junior sports. “If a dentist has a kid playing football or hockey or soccer, they could make themselves available for advice and treatment,” he says. “If one of the players knocks out a tooth on a weekend, it can be almost impossible to find an open dental practice or it’s a trip to an emergency dental clinic.”

So, why do dentists volunteer at sporting events? It’s time-consuming and it can be a high-pressure job. “If you like sport, it’s an opportunity to do a bit of good work and get in the middle of things,” says Dr Woodruff. “And it feels good to give something back to the community. After all, you don’t have to get paid for everything, do you?”

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