I can’t help but giggle every time I read the job title: oral surgeon. Okay, so I have the sense of humour of an 11-year-old. But for many of us, going to the dentist is anything but a laughing matter.
“It can be very stressful for some patients,” admits Chris Song, a newly minted dentist who practises at the Yonge and Bloor Dental clinic downtown. “I’m anxious to make sure their experience is a positive one, especially if they come in with a lot of pain. It’s the most challenging part of being a dentist.”
Song graduated earlier this year after completing four years of study at the University of Toronto. He originally had hoped for a career as an artist, but he has found an ideal outlet in his chosen field, particularly when it comes to cosmetic dentistry. “I like to work with my hands sculpting and things,” he says. “So this is just like having another sort of canvas. People come in with broken teeth, and they are the most rewarding cases for me because you get results right away.
“I had one patient who needed a crown on a tooth right at the front of her mouth. People used to make fun of her. I was able to make a proper crown for her, and she started crying when she saw it looking so much better. It’s very small and very quick, but it helps with people’s confidence.”
The young dentist says he’s fortunate to have found a job so quickly after university, given the large number of graduates now hitting the profession. That the job is in the same clinic as one of his career mentors is especially gratifying. “I knew the principal dentist, Dr [Martin] Sterling, before I got into dental school,” Song says. “I would meet up with him and talk about what it is like to be a dentist. He was a great mentor.”
Sterling is no stranger to the LGBT community, having been one of only two dentists who would take on HIV/AIDS patients during the early years of the disease. Along with Allan Harris, Sterling was an angel of mercy to many needing dental relief. “Dentists would refuse to treat HIV patients,” Sterling says. “There was a lot of stupidity in the profession until the Royal College of Dentists said you have the responsibility to treat everyone with the same level of care.
“Keep in mind, things were very different then. When I graduated from dental school way back, we did not wear masks or gloves or protective eyewear. I remember attending a convention early on and there was a speaker that I’ll never forget who talked about hepatitis. He said that dentists had three times the hepatitis antibodies as a regular person.”
As the disease took hold, it became a new focus for Sterling, both in maintaining the dental health of his patients with HIV/AIDS, as well as keeping an eye out for potential problems. Understandably, there was also an emotional toll. “There were many patients who came to me because I would treat people with HIV and because I was a member of the community. It could be difficult seeing friends and patients wilt away and die or, in half a dozen cases, telling patients that they needed to go see their doctors because I had seen Kaposi sarcoma on the upper palate.
“Fortunately, that scenario has changed dramatically. I still have patients seeing me who I thought wouldn’t be with us for long. That was 10 or 12 years ago, and now they are very stable, thanks to the medications available.”
Mentoring young dentists like Song is important for Sterling, particularly given the challenges facing emerging professionals as they complete their schooling.
“Consider that when I went to dental school, it was $5,000 a year,” he says. “Now it’s more like 40. So with the debt coming out, the difficulty in getting work and a recession, it can be very precarious.”
For Sterling, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of a long career are the connections made with clients throughout their lives — and, sometimes, the lives of their families.
“I enjoy the longstanding relationships with people. For many, I get to watch them grow up, and now I’m treating the children of people whom I treated as children. For me, that is very satisfying.”