Dr Selena’s Leow’s new life as a forensic ontology officer

1
61

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Dr Selena Leow forensic ontology officer
Dr Selina Leow is one of the most experienced forensic odontology officers in Australia. Photo: Adam Taylor

When a life crisis four years ago signalled the end of one chapter of her dental career, Dr Selina Leow set about exploring new ones to remain relevant in the profession she loves. By John Burfitt

In recent years, Dr Selina Leow has been forced to take a much broader view of the scope of her work in dentistry. 

Dr Leow, director of her Stanhope Dental Centre in Sydney’s northwest, works extensively in forensic dentistry as one of NSW’s few forensic odontology officers. 

Away from her Stanhope schedule, every Monday Dr Leow is at the Forensic Medicine and Coroners Court Complex (FMCCC), identifying dead people from their dental records, determining age estimations of deceased young people and providing expert opinion on oral injuries. Forensic odontology is considered one of the fastest methods to identify deceased people. 

And in the case of a mass fatality event, Dr Leow is usually part of the forensic science team on the scene.

While Dr Leow loves and has been committed to forensic dentistry for 15 years, she says change is needed in the field, especially if it is to attract new dental talent.

“The fact is, we do not get paid appropriately to do this work,” she says. “In the past, people just offered their services and so there was this continued assumption that we will do it for free. The government and the police have expectations, and one of those expectations does not, unfortunately, include appropriate renumeration.

“At an accident scene, we are not even covered by insurance like police officers are. You have to be sure you are in a good place financially or have the time to do this, which is one of the reasons a lot of practitioners doing this work are much older. In our group, I am considered one of the ‘babies’—and I am in my 50s!”

Dr Leow is one of the most experienced forensic odontology practitioners in the country. Among her roles are NSW representative to the National Institute of Forensic Science,  president of the Australian Society of Forensic Odontology, chairperson of the INTERPOL Forensic Odontology sub-working Group and National Forensic Odontology Coordinator with the Australian Federal Police.

She’s determined now to use her range of positions to campaign for a change in the Australian odontology landscape. 

“As I am now more senior, I am advocating more and trying to make others see the work we do has value,” she says. “When I am lecturing about this and other dentists ask why odontology practitioners are not paid more, all I can do is shrug. It is frustrating, but I am determined it will change.”

All I knew was I couldn’t let my brain turn to mush and I had to find ways I could be effective. It came down to thinking of what I could I still do, then keeping at it until I worked it out.

Dr Selina Leow, forensic odontology officer

But Dr Leow stresses, undertaking the work is not about money. “Most forensic odontologists and officers all say the same thing; it’s about making sure grieving families in these situations are reunited with their deceased loved ones.

“Because the teeth are such a durable part of the body, they can play a pivotal role in identification. The knowledge I am helping someone’s family at a time of loss is a huge thing, especially knowing what we do is making a difference.”

When life gives you lemons…

The need to contribute to a profession she has been part of since graduating from the University of Sydney in 1992 has become even more pressing for Dr Leow in recent years. In 2020, she faced a major change in her life when she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in her right wrist—her dominant hand.

The cancer, epithelioid sarcoma, was not responsive to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, so the only option Dr Leow had was the amputation of her right forearm, wrist and hand. The loss meant her dental career as she had known it for almost 30 years was over.

“Apart from, obviously, my family and closest friends, telling my patients was one of the hardest things I have ever done, because I have always regarded them as family and I was at a stage where I was dealing with the next generations of patients—and loving that,” she says.

“Telling them I had to shift their treatment to one of my other dentists in my practice was so painful as I faced a sense of letting go. But really, there was no choice. It was a case of I had to have the amputation or die.”

Even though she had an effective prosthetic arm fitted, it did not provide her with the range of motor skills needed for attending to patients. “Think of the fine instruments and the small spaces we have to work with as dentists, and there’s no chance of treating patients,” she says. Even advances in robotic dentistry did not improve her options.

Closing down the Stanhope Dental Centre was never an option. “Not only do our patients rely on this service, but I employ two great dentists and my husband Darren is also a practitioner, so this is our livelihood and we needed to keep it open.”

At one of the biggest crossroads she’d faced in her life, Dr Leow was forced to find a new path forward.

Forging ahead

“All I knew was I couldn’t let my brain turn to mush and I had to find ways I could be effective,” she says. “It came down to thinking of what I could still do, then keeping at it until I worked it out.”

Forensics is now what occupies most of my time and while I do miss the interaction with patients, what I really like about the forensic work is knowing what I am doing counts and is making a difference with the people I am working alongside as well as providing answers to the family and loved one of the deceased.

Dr Selina Leow, forensic odontology officer

She remained responsible for maintaining the administrative aspects of the practice as well as instigated more comprehensive performance review and mentoring programs for the other dentists and support staff on the team.

“I now have more time to give them advice about how to approach particular treatments and to help them learn so they become more empowered in the long run,” she says. “It’s a good way for me to keep an eye on our standards, but to also see growth in our business as our dentists keep adding to their skills.”

Early last year, Dr Leow also began volunteering as a buggy driver at Westmead Hospital, assisting patients to travel around the sprawling complex. “It keeps me working with patients which is what I love most, and it has also taught me new skills in learning how to manoeuvre the vehicle around a building.” 

Her physical state has not, however, impeded her forensic work and she remains in-demand in the field. She’s also actively involved in presenting lectures and as a guest speaker.

“In forensics, I still have all the capabilities to do everything that I would normally do, like X-rays and completing examinations and investigating the details that puts all the information together,” she says. 

“Forensics is now what occupies most of my time and while I do miss the interaction with patients, what I really like about the forensic work is knowing what I am doing counts and is making a difference with the people I am working alongside as well as providing answers to the family and loved one of the deceased.”

All this has helped provide a sense of purpose as she begins new chapters of her career in dentistry—a profession she is adamant she is not finished with yet.

“The tenacity I have was to apply myself in other ways, and that really protected my mental health and my sense of personal worth,” she says. “The thing I have always enjoyed about dentistry is it’s a really nice meld between a technical based proficiency and analytical thinking, then delivering that through effective patient interaction. 

“That’s what has kept me going in the past and finding new ways of working at this stage of my career… well, that keeps me going now. I still have plenty of goals to achieve.”

Previous articleThe ADA launches this year’s Dental Health Week 
Next articleOrthodontics and 3D technology

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here