The road less travelled

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Why did a qualified dentist decide to become a fish-tank cleaner, shelf stacker and receptionist? Frank Leggett follows Dr Angela McIntosh’s incredible 25-year journey.

Broome dentist Dr Angela McIntosh would be very happy if any of her four kids decided to go into dentistry. “My personal belief is that dentistry-like nursing, medicine, and teaching-is a calling,” she says. “I think you’re only good at it if your ambition is to make a difference. People who enter the profession for prestige or just to make money never end up being really good dentists. It’s definitely not for everyone.”

Dr McIntosh has experienced many different types of dentistry during her career, having worked in private practices, the public system and remote Aboriginal communities, as well as starting her own practice in 2014. The route she travelled to become the owner/principal of Pearly Whites Dental is long and winding, with many detours and dead ends on the way.

Growing up in Auckland, Dr McIntosh undertook a Bachelor of Dental Surgery at the University of Otago. “I found dentistry to be incredibly challenging,” she recalls. “I loved it and hated it. I always liked the practical side even though it could be terrifying. The first time I gave an injection, I was shaking like mad. My first filling took me an hour and a half. A filling like that would take me about five minutes now.”

After graduating in 1991, Dr McIntosh immediately moved to Australia. A friend organised to meet her in Melbourne but the friend never showed. “Somehow I found a job in the Latrobe Valley [in Victoria] which is an industrial, coal-mining area. I was picked up from the airport by my new boss and driven straight there. It was quite an experience.”

That boss was Dr Peter Kingsbury, who became a mentor for Dr McIntosh. “He has a brilliant mind and his technical expertise is exceptional. The things he taught me about occlusion have helped me throughout my entire career. I’m so lucky I got to work with him.”

Dr McIntosh worked with Dr Kingsbury for two years. During this time, she mined his knowledge assiduously.

A job ad in the newspaper then took Dr McIntosh to the Melbourne suburb of Brighton Beach. Here, she worked with Dr Pamela Dalgleish, who became another inspirational mentor. “From the moment we met, we got on like a house on fire. Pamela is an amazing dentist who ended up becoming the ADA Victoria Branch president in 2000. She’s a real people person who treats her patients and staff with empathy, humour and gentleness. She instilled in me the social obligation we all have to contribute to society.”

Dr McIntosh purchased a 50 per cent share in the practice and worked there for many years. During this time, she met her future husband Glen Tattersall, gave birth to their son Daniel, and got married. Four years later, Dr McIntosh gave birth to twin girls, Sasha and Claire, who arrived at just 25 weeks. She made the decision to sell her share of the practice and focus on nurturing her son and premature babies. Battling post-natal depression exacerbated by post-traumatic stress, she nursed the girls to good health and saw her son start school.

Tree change

Raising three kids is overwhelming enough; but then Dr McIntosh accidentally fell pregnant with a fourth. A tree change saw the family move to Woodend in the Macedon Ranges of Victoria, where she was able to return to part-time dentistry. But all was not well. “We lived in a house 70 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. It was cold and dark and I was a bit lost. I found it all very difficult and had become jaded and bored with dentistry. I needed a break.”

With little discussion, the couple sold their house and everything they owned. Tattersall gave up his career in IT to become a travelling silver/goldsmith. Dr McIntosh decided she would do whatever came her way-except dentistry. They purchased a six-berth caravan and hit the road with a three-year-old, five-year-old twins and a nine-year-old.

For two years, they called the caravan home. “We just went with the flow. When we felt like staying somewhere, we stayed. We ended up in the oddest places and I didn’t work as a dentist. Glen used the trip to hone his silver- and goldsmithing skills. He set up a workbench in the annex of the caravan and we lived on what he made.”

Eventually they found themselves in the town of Port Augusta in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. If they turned right, they would head towards Western Australia. If they turned left, New South Wales. “We always chose our direction by watching where the eagles were flying. That day they were flying to the right, so WA it was!”

Six months later, the family reached Broome. The town was never meant to be an end destination but every time they tried to leave, something would stop them. The kids enrolled in the local school, Tattersall was selling jewellery and gemstones at the Broome Courthouse Market and Dr McIntosh worked as everything from a fish-tank cleaner to a shelf stacker to a receptionist.

Back on track

One day Dr McIntosh’s eldest son, Daniel, needed a few retained teeth extracted, so she took him to the local dentist. She immediately developed a rapport with the dental nurse, who turned out to be married to the dentist. Though it had been nearly three years since Dr McIntosh had performed any dentistry, she realised she was missing the profession and the interaction with patients.

“When they offered me part-time work, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a fantastic experience and enabled me to get my confidence back as a dentist. I realised how fortunate I was to work in a profession I enjoyed and how fulfilled I felt when patients told me how happy they were with my work.”

Dr McIntosh then took a full-time job as a public dentist even though she had never worked in public dentistry before. She and her dental nurse would visit Aboriginal communities on the Dampier Peninsula.

“My dental nurse and I would pack all our equipment into a Troopy 4WD and off we’d go. We would set up a room in the community school and treat kids during the day. At night we would get a long queue of adults because word got around that I was gentle and caring. I found that about 95 per cent of the Aboriginal people were extremely phobic about dentistry because they had been very roughly treated in the past. We were very popular, to the point that it was almost overwhelming.”

Dr McIntosh worked with some extremely dedicated and caring dental assistants during this time, including two who are still her best mates. She was also inspired by the work of John and Jan Owen. “They set up the Kimberley Dental Team and have made a huge difference up here. They bring volunteer dentists, oral surgeons or specialists to the Kimberleys and travel around the communities providing a wide variety of treatments. They’ve been doing it for years. Their impact has been incredible.” (Read about the Owens in the December 2012 issue of Bite, or else online .

New direction

When her time as a public dentist finished, Dr McIntosh wanted to move to Tasmania but was outvoted by her family. She couldn’t find work in any of the Broome dental practices so decided to start her own. “We couldn’t obtain finances because we were in our 40s and 50s and didn’t have anything behind us.” Relocating wasn’t easy, and moving to Tasmania meant Dr McIntosh didn’t even have a good credit score to fall back on to secure a small loan. They found an empty shop near Town beach, right next to Eighteen Degrees, one of Broome’s most popular restaurants.

“Glen did most of the work-developing the plan, getting council approvals and organising the fit-out. We used Bunnings for the cabinetry, recycled timber from some of Broome’s icons and painted the walls ourselves. We have a nice landlord who’s flexible, helpful and really personable. The big difficulty in setting up a practice is the plumbing. You need a landlord who’s prepared to let you cut their concrete and install pipes everywhere.”

Pearly Whites Dental has been running for a few years now with Dr McIntosh as the dentist, Tattersall as the practice manager/receptionist and a young dental nurse whom Dr McIntosh has trained from scratch. They are booked out four to six weeks in advance and are in the process of setting up a second surgery. Their long convoluted journey has resulted in a successful and growing practice.

“Dentistry has given me a lot of flexibility in my life and you don’t get that in many professions. It’s very appealing. I like that you can create the kind of world you want to live in. You can work in a big practice or you can set up on your own or you can pack your bags and travel with it.”

So, what’s in store for the future? “We’ll stay in Broome, pay off our house and get the kids through high school. I plan to retire in 10 years’ time and after that-who knows? It’s very exciting.”

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