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Free Dental Clinic Relieving Pain For Those In Need

It's the first time in a long time that Kevin Mikaere has had his teeth examined. As a small self-employed commercial fisherman, his business has had to come first over his health and wellbeing.

But after 18 months of tooth pain, Kevin has come to the YWAM Trinity Koha Dental Clinic, located at Whaioranga Trust in Welcome Bay, for an assessment.

"My business is only small, so every bit of money I had I found the business needed it, and being the way dentistry is, quite expensive, I thought my teeth would just have to wait. Then my sister mentioned to me about the good work of the people on this ship coming to Tauranga and that I had an opportunity to go out and get an assessment and see where we can go from there," says Kevin.

That vessel is the YWAM Koha ship, operated by YWAM Ships Aotearoa (YSA), a Tauranga-based charity. While YSA's central purpose is to empower a healthy future in the Pacific through the use of the YWAM Koha to provide medical and dental services, with the borders closed and aware of clear health inequities right here in Aotearoa, the charity pivoted to use its resources to help those with little access to oral health services at affordable prices in the Bay of Plenty.

Kevin is one of those people. The effects of his tooth pain have seriously impacted his life.

"My teeth are in a lot of pain, it comes and goes, but it's coming more regularly than it used to. I used to just try live with it. I'd rub them and get a toothbrush and dig it in there to try and relieve it; that's all I can sort of do.

"It gets to a point where it affects you mentally. I'm too shy to go out and watch my nephew's rugby games and stuff as it's embarrassing – people shouldn't have to look at rotten teeth, so then that started to bug me mentally. I've found myself rarely going out, and I've noticed I'm not eating as much either. I've actually lost a lot of weight, and I'm not a big person as it is."

Kevin says getting the dental service has been an incredible step forward.

"I'm finally doing something about me instead of everything else around me. I was a bit nervous coming out here because nobody likes going to the dentist, but I've left it so long that I've just had to.

"I'm going to make a donation, as it's not only me, but I know a lot of other Maori people too – it's something we avoid. But I'm older now, so I need to sort this out or it could cause another health problem too."

YSA are running the five-week pilot offering essential primary dental services, including x-rays, examinations, extractions, cleaning, restorations, preventative treatment and oral health education. The service is run out of a dental container that has come from the ship and a converted caravan donated by Carpenters Dental.

The pilot has been running in Welcome Bay for the last two weeks in partnership with Whaioranga Trust, and will next be visiting Te Puke and Kawerau.

YWAM dental advisor Sue Cole says there is a high need in the community, with access to dental care a long-standing, multigenerational problem.

"It's a problem to do with finance, culture, the huge increase in the cost of living, and the cost of dentistry. For many of our patients here, they would need either WINZ or some kind of financial support to get dental work done.

"For the last 20 years, it's been the same rate of government-funded dental funding of around $300 per year per patient which will probably get you one filling or one extraction, so the end result is it becomes a low priority for people.

"People get used to this; they think this is normal as Dad's got it, Grandad's got it, Auntie's got it, so they live with the pain. I would say it's not just a cultural thing, it's a New Zealand culture thing – we don't prioritise teeth as much as other cultures."

YWAM Ships Aotearoa managing director Marty Emmett says everyone at the YWAM Trinity Koha Dental Clinic is a volunteer, from the dentists and assistants to the registrations team and hospitality team.

"The first patient we had asked 'what's in it for you?', which is a natural human assumption. I said, 'nothing mate, other than the joy of helping you'. He said 'well surely you're getting paid for this', but I replied no we are all volunteers and we raised money for this so we could provide free oral care.

"He just couldn't believe it. For us, we are all Christians, and we believe this is our mission – we just want to help people. Everyone is a volunteer; it's how we can do things like this. When we get going and deploy the ship and provide the same thing in the Pacific, everyone volunteers and believes in the purpose and gives themselves fully for it, it makes it fun to work with people like that."

Marty says one of the desired outcomes of the project is to bridge the gap so that the dental industry can see there is a huge need that the government is not helping with.

"We have had many people mention that they believe that people can get the help they need, they just choose not. But what are seeing so far in these clinics tells us that this is simply not true. We had a grandma who was putting everything into her family and couldn't afford to get her teeth fixed – she was waiting six months to sort out an infection. We've had three patients within the past two days who have been pulling out their own teeth.

"There's a big disconnect – there are needs not being met and a perspective that's not correct. There are those that think people aren't getting their teeth done because of preference. I don't know any normal person, forget race or culture, that actually thinks that way. This is a great issue, and it’s something that we need to work together to resolve. We cannot sit back and wait for the government to act, we must act.

"Theres a growing segment of society that doesn't have the resource and will live in constant pain because of it, and there's no one telling their story. It's their normal and they're not seen – we're working to let them know we see them, and we are here to help."

YWAM Ships Aotearoa sought funding from TECT to help cover the costs of equipment, including the upgrade of a steriliser to meet New Zealand standards and for dental consumables.

TECT Deputy Chairperson Natalie Bridges says the $27,000 in TECT funding was an investment that would reap huge health rewards for those in need throughout the community.

“Given the wholly volunteer nature of the project, community collaborations established to deliver it, and the significant potential health benefits to a vulnerable group within our community, we were pleased we could provide funding towards the pilot. It was a unique opportunity for us to fund dental care for those in need in our community.

“This dental care is providing more than just much-needed pain relief, but so many other positive outcomes including education, confidence, and mental wellbeing. The work of all the volunteers involved is commendable and we thank them for their service.”


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