“My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed
ambitions.” – James Joyce
If eyes are the gateways to the soul, then teeth are a record
of the peaks and valleys of a person’s life.
“There’s such a strong connection between the health of
one’s teeth and a person’s mental health because dental health has everything
to do with caring for yourself,” says Dr. Paul Zung, Senior Dentist at CAMH’s
Dental Clinic. He explains that teeth are a cumulative record of a person’s
life, recording the times when people are healthy and the times they stop
caring for themselves, like when a patient has a psychotic episode.
Dr. Zung and CAMH client James Bennett.
With his team of two other dentists and a hygienist, Dr.
Zung helps to restore the teeth, smiles and confidence of patients at CAMH. Established
in the late 1800s, the dental clinic meets a basic, yet essential need often
James Bennett is a CAMH client and began his journey to
recovery at CAMH over two years ago when he sought treatment for addiction. He
is now a client of the mood and anxiety service. “I had a good life, a great
job and then I began to have serious problems, and that road led me to life on
the street,” James explains. He got into a fight and his front teeth were
knocked out. “I can’t tell you how people look at you, what they think about
you or feel about you when you have missing teeth.”
But then he was referred to the dental clinic and Dr. Zung
started to re-build what James had lost. By putting in a new front tooth, Dr.
Zung helped to transform how James looked at himself as well how others saw
him. James remembers the moment he saw himself in the mirror after the
procedure. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw my reflection. As soon as my tooth
was put back in, I was smiling, laughing. Dr. Zung gave me back my smile, my
confidence and a piece of me that I thought had been lost. It’s something
simple that a lot of people take for granted but it means so much to me.”
The clinic treats the neediest patients who often have difficulty
getting care in dental offices because of behavioural problems or the severity
of their dental condition. The clients can be challenging to treat because they
might suffer from anxiety or other mental illnesses that make the whole process
more difficult. Earning their trust is key.
“Going into the mouth is like being invited into somebody’s
house. You need to be a good guest so you can be invited back because they
trust you,” he says. “When I am able to do that, they open wide for me and say,
‘Come on in, I need help.’”
In some cases, the amount of dental repair is overwhelming
and people cannot afford to pay for treatment. Other than the clinic at CAMH, the
bulk of this work is done in private offices by good-hearted dentists who know how
to win trust and work fast. It’s truly a labour of love and that’s what drew
Dr. Zung to CAMH.
“I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my working day cleaning
teeth that were already clean,” he says. “The difference between the typical
private patient and my clients is I feel my skills are best used by doing the
full mouth rehabilitation work I do here.”
And this approach to providing compassionate care through
dentistry is what he hopes to pass on to the next generation of dentists. As a
clinical instructor of prosthodontics at the Faculty of Dentistry at the
University of Toronto, he passes on his skills and his philosophy of serving
those in need to students.
Hayley Faulkner helped organize a seminar on mental health
with Dr. Zung and eventually came to CAMH to learn more. “It’s a population
that’s certainly under-treated,” she says. “And so as students, we have an
opportunity to see that treating patients with mental illness is not as
intimidating as we might have thought and we might feel more omfortable with
treating them once we graduate and go into practice.”
Minseon Jenn Kim has not only shadowed Dr. Zung but has
treated patients at CAMH, from assisting on a crown prep to consulting for a
denture. “It is more challenging work, I believe but it’s also more rewarding,”
says the third year student who emphasizes the need for health-related
dentistry. “While implant and bridges are important, I could see what a change
dental work that is really necessary can have on a person’s life in the clinic
And those future dentists are lining up to gain experience
treating CAMH clients. The hope is to establish a dental community outreach
program to give students an opportunity to use their skills to make a
difference in patient’s lives. That is what Dr. Zung considers his calling. “We
need to serve people at the points of greatest need where our lives intersect
theirs,” he says.