Paano Ba Maging Dentista ng Bayan sa Panahon ng Pandemya

Two years have lapsed since the start of the pandemic. Students have asked me, “How is it to be a ‘Dentista ng Bayan’ during this deadly Covid outbreak? Should they quit the course, leave the country and live another life?  Or should they simply bum around until the virus has been completely wiped out? I know a lot of dentists who have closed shop and shifted to other less riskier businesses such as online selling . But how do you really survive as a dentist during the pandemic?

For a lot of my colleagues, the pandemic made life physically and emotionally exhausting. I had my own share of paranoia and very sad experiences.  But on the other hand, the pandemic gave me that impetus to change my traditional mindset and to abandon my old, unhealthy lifestyle.  Instead of forcing my old life to fit into the situation, I was compelled to build a new one. From there, I unearthed ‘blessings’ hidden behind every adverse Covid-related event. As I narrate my experiences in  surviving the pandemic as a dentist; I realized what is more important here are the lessons learned for me to be able to get to where I am right now.

1.Learn acceptance– At the onset of the first lockdown, I  had to pray hard: “God, give me the courage to accept things that I cannot change.” It took time before I learned to accept the ‘new normal’, but acceptance gave me clarity and serenity of mind and the firm resolve to change.

2. Enjoy the moment.- We are inclined to overthink during the pandemic. During the first few weeks of the lockdown, I just had to keep myself distracted from the nerve-racking news on TV and social media.  I needed to preserve my mental health. This was the time I started binge-watching the popular series “Crash Landing On You’, which eventually yielded to my addiction to K-Dramas.  It  was the most pleasurable episode of my pandemic life: just watching  shows on Netflix while eating my favorite popcorn every day. However, the pleasure was short-lived. Eventually I got bored. I felt unproductive and useless. Being inutile also affected my mental health. Time to move forward.

3. Study, study study.- The pandemic made me realize that this was the best time to take online courses. After decades of practicing Pediatric Dentistry, I realized that children need not suffer from invasive, traumatic and risky procedures such as sedations and general anesthesia- if only our Public Health strategies were geared towards oral health promotion, prevention and early intervention, specifically during the child’s ‘first 1000 days’. Strengthening Public Health in Pediatric Dentistry has become my mission for a ‘westernized, clinical and private practice’ oriented organization such as  the Philippine Pediatric Dental Society Inc., of which I am a member. Meanwhile, taking those online courses stimulated my creativity and passion to teach again. Studying became my most fulfilling undertaking during the pandemic. It was therapeutic for me in preserving my mental health.

4. Grab opportunities.- Opportunities knock only once. An opening for a Dentist V position in DOH loomed on the internet. I initially resisted. I felt only those coming from the government will be surely accepted.  But my dentist-friends persuaded me. And then I realized, there was no harm in trying. Growing old with many ‘what if’s’ in life (‘what if I applied’) is worse than having a defeatist attitude. After all, all my life I took risks;  and it is in taking risks that victories are won. And voila… I got the DOH position.

5. Practice gratitude.–  When I am feeling down, I ‘count my blessings’. At a time when clinical practice has become risky, I strongly feel that it was Divine Intervention that got me a non-clinical dental job at the DOH. Just when I got tired from doing downstream interventions (clinical work); here I am at DOH ‘going upstream’ with policy making, setting standards, making guidelines and regulations for Philippine Dentistry.

6. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.- When I got into the DOH,  I began to  realize that the dental profession is entrapped inside a huge soap bubble. With the advent of the Universal Health Care Law, integration of policies and collaboration with all health professionals are inevitable at the DOH. I got involved with very intelligent, selfless and community – oriented medical doctors, nurses and other allied health care professionals. This expanded professional circle is giving me more opportunities for learning and professional growth.

7. Help people who have less. – With its breadth and depth of coverage, it is  in government where you can really impact people’s lives. It’s where more opportunities to help the poor and the needy abound. It’s where you get more assistance, both from local and international NGOs. It’s where you can apply public health principles of equity and social justice. With the right leaders, working in government is not as horrific as how it is portrayed in social media.

8. Be values driven. – Your integrity and values will be constantly tested and challenged while in government. ‘Love of country’ should be the foundation of your work ethic. While having ‘grit’ is what will make you survive the complex political landscape.

9. Accept challenges.- With the advent of integration and primary care, I took the challenge of accepting the lead for Child Health and Nutrition, where I will be able to  integrate oral health with general health. By breaking my ‘dental soap bubble’, there are of course feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. But I guess that is  how life is. All I can say is, “Challenge accepted!”

10. Pray. Prayer is my time for rest and self reflection,  I cannot imagine surviving life without it.

In conclusion, I have come to realize that  I am, and will be an ‘Eternal Student’…,  better yet an “Iskolar ng Bayan’… for life. From private practice to government service, this is my way of giving back to the UP College of Dentistry  and to my country… sa panahon ng pandemya. As one of my superiors have told me, “Lead, Learn and Laugh.” And that is exactly what I am going to do.

Dr. Manuel Vallesteros, Class of 1987 is
currently the Chief of Child Health Division,
Disease Prevention and Control Bureau,
Department of Health

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