Putting his principles in action through adversity

An outback dentist’s narrow scrape with death only served to reinforce his commitment to vocational work among disadvantaged Indigenous communities.

Dr Jilen Patel is lucky to be alive. On 13 August 2013, the Perth-based dentist was 10 km out of Halls Creek, enroute to the remote community of Warmun to perform invaluable oral health work. Dr Patel along with a small mobile team of dental volunteers, who form part of the Kimberley Dental Team (KDT), were in the area to deliver vital dental treatment and oral health education to remote West Australian Indigenous children and their families. Suddenly, their four-wheel drive and mobile dental trailer slewed out of control on the open road and flipped three times.

“As the passenger, somehow I managed to crawl out through the crushed cab’s window… everything was destroyed. The four-wheel drive was a write-off. We’d all suffered quite severe injuries, and some of my team were in shock with critically low blood pressure. It was only when I tried to call for help that I saw my hand had been badly damaged…” Patel pauses. “It’s still hard to talk about, it was very traumatic. But the experience really rammed home how difficult it is to access care in rural and remote areas.”

As someone who constantly works with their hands, it was a nightmare scenario. “I stressed over if I’d ever able to practice again,” recounts Patel. “And I know that the surgeons were wondering about that, too.”

Eventually, due to the fast-acting Perth surgeons, Dr Patel made a full recovery and was soon back onboard with KDT doing what he loved – helping people in disadvantaged communities. Which is why, he says, the new US$6,000 Community Service Grant from Wrigley Company Foundation and the Australian Dental Health Foundation has been so vital.

“These communities have very high rates of decay and gum disease with virtually zero access to dental services, so emergency care and relief of pain is a big part of what we do. But preventive health is even more important,” explains Patel. “Our Strong Teeth for Kimberley Kids tooth-brushing program is probably one of our biggest success stories. Schools all across the Kimberley have adopted it, and the grant allows KDT to supply dental health packs for the kids and information for the teachers, and continually replenish it each school term.”

KDT’s community engagement has not only brought greater awareness about oral health to the remote communities, it’s something the local Indigenous children have embraced. “They love it!” enthuses Patel. “We create a fun, friendly environment. We go in with ‘Craig the Crocodile’ and teach them how to brush. All the kids have their own toothbrush, and in every class they have a different or innovative way of brushing their teeth and storing their toothbrushes. Importantly, the kids really own and adopt the program for themselves, as opposed to us simply coming in like an intervention and hoping for change.  And now, every year, we go back to these communities and you can see a genuine improvement in the oral health of the kids. It’s making a huge difference.”

He’s not wrong – initial screening by KDT found that up to 75% of primary school kids in the region had widespread decay requiring urgent treatment. But since their regular visits and the implementation of the KDT Strong Teeth for Kimberley Kids tooth-brushing program, follow-up screening conducted in 2013 found this had dropped to 35% in some areas. “That’s a very, very big change,” smiles Patel. “It really impacts the kids as they are now without pain, can concentrate in school and eat healthy foods.”

A grant recipient for the third year in a row, Patel is likewise enthusiastic about what the Wrigley Company Foundation and ADHF grant can allow KDT to achieve this time around. “Over the upcoming four-week period, I will personally hope to see 250 to 400 patients. For the whole team, we’ll probably see 600 patients and perform over 1,000 treatment services. Every bit of funding we get makes a huge difference. Basically, without that sort of support there isn’t much we could do, really.

“For example,” continues Patel, “if we visit a township like Balgo, that’s a six-hour trip on desert roads where you’re sure to get at least one flat tyre along the way. So the fundamental logistics to get there, setting up the KDT program and seeing patients are huge. But if you go to the government and say you’ve done one filling in Balgo, it’s too small scale for them to really take notice. So the Wrigley Company Foundation / ADHF grant really helps with things like the travel costs and accommodation, but also the dental consumables and toothbrushes. It also contributes to the booklets that show people everything from what’s the right food to have, how to brush your teeth, when to brush your teeth, when do baby teeth come out, and all that sort of stuff. Oral care education on prevention is extremely important.”

Patel is fiercely passionate about how improving the dental health of Indigenous communities is integral to ‘closing the gap’. “It’s an absolutely massive part of it,” he stresses. “With the research that I’m involved in, even when you speak to elders and people within the community, the biggest thing they are worried about is their teeth – because there is little health support out there, oral health is a big issue and is one reason as to why the gap is still there.”

On a personal level, Patel continues to find his work with the KDT incredibly rewarding. “The real, positive change that you can make to the entire community –  you know, seeing kids being able to eat, sleep and go to school again without constant pain – is just fantastic!” he says, proudly. “Moreover, people who volunteer with us come back repeatedly, year after year, because the whole thing is just such a very rewarding experience. We’re making a big difference out here, and they love being part of that.”