For the Youth in Kashmir… If I can do it anyone can…
By: Dr. Humairah Shah
I am a dentist, author, Huffington Post Blogger and an Oral health educator. It has been a long, challenging but definitely a fun ride. For all of you reading this article, especially the youth, I want you to know that, I was just an average student blessed with “strong will” and a very supportive family. My “grades” were never remarkable, but my “resilience”, my family and my appetite for never giving up are truly responsible for who I have become.
I still recall our elementary school in Kashmir requiring that our nails be trim and clean, hair neatly tied in white ribbons and shoes polished to a gleam. We would have daily inspections. In dental college I learnt how oral health affected our overall well-being and how much more important oral hygiene screening would have been, especially when compared to well-polished shoes!
In dental college, Community Dentistry class gave us an opportunity to work in rural villages. It was shocking how many kids with swollen faces I came across in a single day. I remember examining a four-year-old girl. She had a piece of dead bone in her mouth that had partially separated from her jaw (also known as sequestrum). As a young student, I was unsure of the diagnosis. Even after all these years, I remember rushing to my professor saying, “You’ve got to see this”. He was able to tell that an untreated tooth infection had resulted in a jaw infection, causing a part of the bone “to die”. Although we were able to treat the child, what bothered me was that her parents had taken their daughter to a priest for spiritual treatment instead of a dentist.
It has almost been 20 years since that incident and to this day, it remains a vivid memory to me. I have never been able to shrug away the fact that a little education about dental health will go a long way. Years of practice since then have left no doubt in my mind that oral health education is severely lacking. Teeth are directly connected to our body and any infection goes straight into the blood. If a child is diabetic or has heart problems, it is even more important that they keep their teeth clean. Dental infections for them especially, could result in serious complications.
After dental college, I moved to United States. Of course, USA was way advanced when it came to dentistry. I had the best technology, instruments and top-of-the-line materials to work with. I was in dental heaven and then I came face-to-face with Nursing Bottle Syndrome (NBS). How could a country like USA have problems as preventable as NBS, I wondered! Why didn’t pediatricians and dentists collaborate to educate parents? Day after day, I treated toddlers who faced pain and extensive treatment for NBS. “Is my job only to fix teeth once the damage has been done? Is that all I’ve signed up for?” were questions that haunted me.
Adults however, weren’t my only audience. I felt compelled, almost obsessive about reaching out to children. How could I get kids to manage their own dental care? The question tossed and turned in my head and eventually resulted in a series of children’s books, my foray as a writer. I wrote Sam and the Sugar Bug, Leila and the Tooth Fairy and Leila’s First Visit to the Dentist. Later, I added narration and sound effects to Sam and the Sugar Bug and released it in iBooks. It makes my day to see that Sam and the Sugar Bug has four times more reviews than Cat in the Hat in ibooks. All three titles continue to be the only books to educate children about the importance of good oral health in a fun and engaging manner, especially kids with special needs. In coming years, I wrote, Funny Teeth and Bunny Ears to help children quit thumb sucking, Boogers Boogers that teaches kid basic hygiene, Greedy Dog and Me and Working on the Title Ideas Welcome.
Truth be told, I could have never imagined that my books would find their way into the National Resource List for Kids with Special Needs or that I would be featured on Austim Live. To this day, whenever I hear from parents of kids with Special Needs about the difference the books have made, I feel a sense of satisfaction that I didn’t stop at wringing my hands in despair but that I did something about the issue. In the process, I unknowingly created a tool for children who most needed it. Professionally, I feel complete. Being a dentist wasn’t enough for me. The impact I make as an oral health educator makes me feel truly accomplished.
I honestly believe that a little education about dental care has the potential to prevent a host of diseases. If manufacturers of dental care products spent half the money on education that they do on advertising or if government invested half as much time and money on educating our patients, as we do on treatment, we will have a new beginning.