The need has been great in the city, but work is underway to meet it.
When Wairoa’s last dentist left town two years ago, residents faced a long journey that proved insurmountable for many. But this week, 15 dentists volunteered their time to help close the gap. Reporting by Matthew Rosenberg. . .
On a warm Tuesday morning at the north end of Hawke’s Bay, a schoolyard is buzzing with music and buzz.
But the brouhaha does not come from the students of Wairoa College.
Tō Waha – a community initiative attracting 15 dentists from across the country – descended on the town of 4,500, offering free dental care.
“I had three extractions today and three fillings. The old mouth ain’t great right now,” Trevor Mihaere offers candidly, moments after receiving an overdue job on his mouth.
He may be in pain now, but he’s optimistic the treatment will end the headaches that have plagued him for months.
Mihaere’s story is not uncommon in Wairoa.
When the last dentist left town nearly two years ago they were never replaced, leaving more than 2,000 clients facing an hour and a half walk north to Gisborne or a trip two hours south to Napier and Hastings for treatment.
This week, Tō Waha offered 250 dates to people over the age of 18 in and around Wairoa, hoping to fill that hole, or at least fill in some of the cracks.
Wairoa District Council chief executive Kitea Tipuna knows the needs of the community better than anyone and says the lack of accessibility to oral care has taken its toll on the town and surrounding areas.
“Given the socio-economic profile of this community, cost is an issue for all of our whānau who require dental care,” says Tipuna.
“This is a short-term solution to a bigger problem, a bigger problem here in Wairoa.”
The numbers paint the picture. Of the 49 people who were seen on the first day alone, the dentists’ work included 77 extractions and 43 fillings. But there is a warm, calm air about this place on this sizzling weekday morning.
Dentists make residents smile
While the need is great, Tipuna is encouraged by what he sees.
In fact, he says it makes his heart sing. People get life-changing work, chronic pain is treated, and community is created.
Volunteers (30 in total) welcome people from diverse backgrounds to a safe space where they can receive otherwise inaccessible health care free of charge.
It’s now day two and the place is buzzing, which doesn’t seem to surprise Tipuna. Speaking to a group of media gathered in the school playground, he tells the story of two friends who recently needed to extract seven teeth each, but were about to cancel their appointments to Napier/Hastings because they didn’t have a driver to take them back to Wairoa. .
“We happen to be in an isolated part of the country where the household income level is lower, and things tend to trickle down to many of our whānau,” he says.
“Are you taking time off or trying to put food on the table for your kids? These are the types of conversations that our people, our families, have to negotiate. »
It’s a need that caught the attention of Ashburton-based dentist Justin Wall, who leads the Maori Oral Health Providers Quality Improvement Group.
Wall is both heartened and heartbroken by what he sees unfolding in Wairoa.
On the one hand, needs are met and smiles are put on faces, literally.
On the other hand, a failing system is brought to light like crystal.
“To be able to come here is a lesson in humility. It’s valuable for me personally to be able to see people who are afraid and to overcome that fear so that services are delivered in a very welcoming environment,” he says.
“That’s good news. It’s the empowered community.
But the reality of the situation is also a tough pill to swallow, and Wall pulls no punches when considering why Tō Waha is needed in the first place.
Health outcomes for Maori – who in Wairoa make up 70% of the population – are historically poor and the result of systemic racism that has been baked into the system, he says.
Wall estimates that about 55% of the country’s population is well served by the current oral health system, but the rest fall through the cracks.
“The system is inherently, at its very core, racist. It was a system put in place by white men to serve white men and, for the past 25 years, to serve white women.
“The problem is not with the individual. It depends on the system. The individual is the person who suffers from the great failure of the system.
Wall says the health care system is mired in victim blaming and widespread attitudes that people with poor outcomes caused it themselves by making bad decisions.
He argues that people never deliberately make bad choices. Everyone does their best with the information and resources available.
“People should make decisions about outcomes (but) they need to be educated to understand what they’re getting.
“If you live in Remuera, your decision is whether or not to drive your Q7 or your Tesla. If you’re in Ruatoria, you’re wondering how to keep the rain from coming through your roof and making sure your toaster works.
“The problem is that the people who live in Remuera are the ones who formulate the policies.”
Three hundred miles from where these decisions are made, a glimpse of what accessible, holistic health care can look like seems to be developing.
Wairoa Community Partnership Implementation Group co-chair Sarah Paku was pleasantly surprised by how consistently people showed up for their appointments this week, while lamenting that her community was forced to endure poor oral health.
“Whānau is really grateful to have this opportunity because they can’t travel out of Wairoa – they don’t have the funds. They don’t have the means to move. And they need to get their teeth done. Many people cannot eat. . . they can’t smile.
It takes a village to organize an initiative like Tō Waha, and in this case it included collaboration between the DHB, key community figures, volunteers, hygienists and, of course, dentists.
Working behind the scenes, Charrisa Keenan is a shining example that there are no heroes in efforts like this.
She speaks enthusiastically about the education they provide, ensuring people are equipped long after they leave the dentist’s chair.
When she delves into the three things she knew it would take to get the project off the ground – facilities, money and dentists – it becomes clear that she is a key figure in the operation.
Keenan humbly divulges that she is the project leader, but is reluctant to even share her last name because she doesn’t want to draw attention. She knows that kaupapa extends far beyond the work of a single individual.
If the need is great, so is the eagerness to find a solution. Keenan has a lot to say, but it could just be a simple stat she offers that conveys hope that there could be a better future, despite the flaws in the current system.
Tō Waha had to turn 10 dentists away as they were already at capacity.
And for people like Julie Stevens of Wairoa, who said her teeth felt “million dollar” after her visit, the results are tangible and life-changing.
“Listen to that hive of activity over there,” she said from inside one of the classrooms.
“It’s nice to see a lot of people from Wairoa coming here and getting much needed service.”
Loving the care: Sophie O’Neill receives treatment Tuesday from dentist June Fraser and dental assistant Lerlene Wright. Pictures of Liam Clayton
Affordability: Wairoa District Council chief executive Kitea Tipuna says cost is an issue for any whanau who needs dental care in the district.
MIXED FEELINGS: Ashburton-based dentist Justin Walls, who leads the Maori Oral Health Providers Quality Improvement Group, says he is both heartened and heartbroken by what he sees unfolding in Wairoa.
Appreciation: Trevor Mihaere and Julie Stevens, both of Wairoa, sang the praises of the initiative. After three extractions and three fillings, Mihaere may be in pain now, but he is optimistic the treatment will end the headaches that have plagued him for months.