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Australian Army dentist Lieutenant Colonel Karen Such has had many incredible experiences at home and overseas. She’s also built an impressive career, and has a world of opportunity at her feet. By Shane Conroy
Lieutenant Colonel (LTCOL) Karen Such wasn’t necessarily looking for adventure. After her teacher parents warned her off the family profession, she became interested in a career in the healthcare industry. She got her first taste of dentistry during high school work experience at her local dental clinic in suburban Adelaide.
“I really liked it,” she says. “Dentistry is science-based of course, but it struck me that there is also an element of art to it. That really captured my attention.”
Such went on to study dentistry at the University of Adelaide. About three years into her studies, her father invited her to a dinner that would determine the course of her career.
“Dad was in the Army Reserve when I was growing up, so I always had an awareness of the army,” she explains. “But it wasn’t until he invited me to a dining-in night that I got really interested. I met a lot of great people that night, and they turned me on to the idea of applying for a Defence University Sponsorship. I put in the paperwork and the rest is history.”
Baptism by fire
Such was accepted at the start of the fourth year of her university, and the Australian Defence Force picked up the bills for the rest of her study.
“After I graduated, I was told my first posting was going to be in Darwin,” she says. “I was a bit shocked at first, but it turned out to be an awesome experience.”
Such says that while her three-year posting in Darwin felt like a baptism by fire, it gave her an excellent opportunity to build a solid foundation of clinical skills. She was working at an on-base dental clinic under a senior dentist mentor, and was treating patients just as she would in private practice—with one key difference.
“It was a good way to get a true feel of the army,” she says. “I lived in the officers’ mess and met lots of young officers. We’d have physical training in the morning, then I’d be practising in the surgery for four to five days per week.
“All of the general dentistry is the same as in private practice. Some of the soldiers come from low socio-economic backgrounds and need a lot of dental work initially. I did crowns and root canals, and was cementing down the key skills. But there is probably less time pressure than in private practice. There’s not a bill at the end of every treatment, so that takes the business complications out of it.”
A European posting
Such also completed a six-week Specialist Officer Course during her time in Darwin, which included learning how to march, salute and use a weapon. Then she accepted a two-year posting in Townsville.
“It was a similar job, but during my second year I got an opportunity to do an exchange with the British Army. I was stationed at a British base in Germany for four months. I met all the dentists over there and saw how they work. And I got to do a bit of travel.”
After her return to Townsville, the army sponsored her to complete a one-year graduate diploma at the University of Western Australia and she grabbed the opportunity.
Following her studies, Such explains that under a Return of Service Obligation she was required to serve a year for each year of sponsored study, plus one. That meant another two-year posting, this time in Brisbane. But Such was happy to recommit to the Army.
“It was about this time that I was talking to some friends in private practice,” she says. “A lot of them were saying they were sick of just being in the clinic all day, every day, and wanted to do something different. That’s where working in Defence is good because you do have the flexibility to take on different opportunities and have a wider range of experiences.”
Visiting remote villages
Several opportunities were waiting just around the corner. During her time in Brisbane, Such participated in the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program. She accompanied a team of engineers and support staff to the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome in Western Australia.
“That was really special,” she says. “In addition to providing dental treatment to the army personnel who were working on a construction project there, I was able to participate in community outreach. I spent some time treating people in remote Indigenous communities. It was an unforgettable experience.”
But that was really only the beginning of the adventures to come. A year later, while based in Sydney, Such took part in the Pacific Partnership—an annual exercise coordinated by the US military.
“A number of other nations including Australia, the UK, Canada and Japan link up to provide support,” she explains. “It’s all about building relationships with Pacific nations, and we went over to Papua New Guinea on the HMAS Tobruk. We worked in the villages with local healthcare providers. We learnt how they provide treatment within the restrictions they have, and we were able to impart some of our experience to them.”
Exploring the Pacific
Then, in 2018, Such was posted to the USNS Mercy. This is one of two major US Navy hospital ships that were recently used in New York and Los Angeles as part of the COVID-19 response.
“These are massive oil tankers that have been converted to 1000-bed hospital ships,” she says. “I joined the USNS Mercy in Guam, and we sailed to Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. We conducted community outreach everywhere we went, and worked particularly closely with the Sri Lanka Navy. They would set up community clinics and we would go out and augment them.”
Such was in charge of all Australians on the ship, and her clinic and community work came in between liaising with Defence attaches in the various places the ship visited.
Back in Sydney in 2020, Such took up a role as acting senior command health officer at the Headquarter Forces Command.
“Headquarter Forces Command manages about 80 per cent of the operational army, and we have been providing general health planning advice to support the response to the bush fires and then COVID-19.
“Since about 2013 I’ve been more in administrative roles, but throughout that time I’ve always managed to maintain a day or two per week of clinic time at one of the military clinics. Wherever you’re working, there is a defence dental clinic pretty close by, and it’s easy enough to arrange to have regular time in the clinic.”
The path ahead
In 2021, Such made the trip back up to North Queensland to take on a role as commanding officer of the Joint Health Unit there. She is overseeing health clinics at the navy base in Cairns, and the army and air force bases in Townsville.
It’s exactly this kind of varied experience across the healthcare field that Such says makes the army an excellent opportunity for dentists.
“There are a few ways I could go in the future,” she explains. “I could continue to work in health management in Defence, or I could come back as an external contractor and practise at a clinic on a military base. Or, in the civilian world, I could go into private practice or take up an administrative role in healthcare management.
“As an army dentist I’ve had many amazing experiences and made close friendships both here and overseas. At the same time, I’ve had the opportunity to develop my clinical skills and build my experience across greater healthcare management. It has been an awesome journey so far.”