Why a Thunder Bay dentist went on an oral-health ‘mission’ to a fly-in First Nation

Derval Clarke has long volunteered his services in his homeland of Jamaica. Last month, he travelled to another place that needs dental care — the remote community of Wunnumin Lake
By Charnel Anderson - Published on September 20, 2018
two people in front of a plane
Derval Clarke and fellow dentist Martesia Marshall on their way to Wunnumin Lake First Nation, one of many remote Ontario communities without a full-time dental clinic. (Derval Clarke)

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Every year for the past five years, dentist Derval Clarke has travelled from Thunder Bay to his home country of Jamaica to volunteer his services. But this year, he instead visited Wunnumin Lake First Nation, a remote fly-in community 360 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout. There, Clarke and fellow dentist Martesia Marshall spent four days doing X-rays, extractions, and everything in between — all free of charge.

“It was my first time doing it in Canada,” Clarke says. “And, obviously, as a Canadian citizen, I have a responsibility to volunteer to my fellow citizens.”

TVO.org spoke with Clarke about what he calls his annual “mission” and about the state of oral health in remote First Nations.

When did you start doing volunteer dentistry?

My first humanitarian trip was to Jamaica, in my third year of dental school. And I enjoyed it; I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was awesome. It was fulfilling. You get a chance to help a lot of people. Most of them, in that setting, would not otherwise be able to afford care or get care. It’s heartwarming work — very personally fulfilling for me. It’s almost selfish in that respect.

Is there a regular dentist in Wunnumin Lake?

There isn’t a dentist there. Wunnumin is a small community [population: 707]. As you can imagine, that’s just not enough people to keep a dentist busy year-round. So what does happen is Health Canada partners with dentists to visit these communities on a regular basis. So it’s every month or every two months — or whatever interval is necessary.

Invariably, somebody has an issue between visits — maybe they lost a filling, or a tooth has become loose, or there’s a little bit of pain, and they have to wait until the next visit. And that’s why I thought this was a good volunteer opportunity. I wasn’t there to maintain a constant presence, but I was able to provide some relief during that interval.

Studies show that First Nations tend to have worse oral health than people in the rest of Canada (as TVO.org has reported). What have you found?

Personally, I don’t find that the risk of caries [cavities] is any higher in Wunnumin than in Thunder Bay. I work in Nipigon, I’ve worked in Schrieber, I’ve worked in Ear Falls, I’ve worked in Nunavut. I’ve worked in a lot of remote places and, anecdotally, the risk of caries is roughly the same.

From what I can tell, it’s less a problem of diet than it is a lack of access to fluoride. I know that some people are opposed to fluoride, but the benefits of it are very, very clear. There are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed journals and articles that tell us that a community that receives fluoridated water has 25 per cent fewer caries than a community without fluoridated water. None of the communities that I’ve ever worked in have had fluoridated water. And that, I think, is the problem.

What are the dental facilities like in Wunnumin Lake?

It’s a beautiful facility. I love working there. They had everything that I needed to perform high-quality dentistry. But it’s not what I have in Jamaica. Jamaica is much more makeshift. It’s different: we’re basically borrowing a school and transforming it into a dental clinic.

Most of the reserves and communities that I’ve been to have really good facilities — good chairs, good lighting, good sterilization facilities. There was also a central station in Sioux Lookout that was able to transport supplies to me, almost the same day. I was impressed.

Are you going to continue doing this work?

Oh, absolutely — there’s no question. I love all my patients, but the best dentistry I’ve ever performed is when I’m on a mission. The feeling you get when you give back without expecting anything in return is an absolutely beautiful, wonderful feeling.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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