Dentistry for a Cause
8 October 2018 at 8:48 am
Dr Sonia Sonia is not your typical dentist, volunteering and now starting her own charity putting her professional skills to use to help those affected by family violence. She is this week’s Changemaker.
There are always signs.
Bruises, smashed teeth and a split lip isn’t something that happens when you walk into a door.
Dr Sonia Sonia knows exactly what these signs are, having experienced family violence herself.
She used the weapon of education to get out of her abusive home in India, and moved to Australia where she now runs three dental clinics in Brisbane.
She can spot the signs of abuse – the smashed teeth and bruises – in patients she treats, which inspired her to set aside one day a month where she would treat victims of domestic abuse for free in all her clinics.
She is now about to open her own charity, ReStore, which will create a network of dentists to fix the smiles of people who’ve endured abuse, for free.
In this week’s Changemaker, Sonia discusses her practical approach to domestic violence support and the overlooked consequences of family violence.
How has your past shaped the work you do today?
I’m not sure what changed, but when I was in year 11, my Dad became abusive towards my mum. I would try and stop it by coming in between them, but that meant I also copped it. That changed the way I thought about life, and family relations. I always used to see people who would ask, how could that happen? We are a family, we love each other and we protect each other. But then someone turns on the rest, and suddenly the family is scared for their lives because of you. I couldn’t make sense of it, so I could never really answer that question.
My mum was a teacher, and I remember her saying, “you know what, you’re a good student, you have a weapon of education, use it. Use it to get out of this house and do something good for your future”. I had to do it, for me, for my mum and my family.
After I finished medical school, and had the status of being a doctor, I was able to talk to my dad and counsel him. In the end he did say sorry to the whole family. At the end of the day we forgave him, for our peace of mind.
He was also a great dad. There were five bad years, which you could cry about, or you can use the rest of your years as a strength. I find it really strange when people say, “I can’t believe it”, because it’s so obvious. There are signs everywhere, you need to be careful and be present with the people, because they are everywhere.
You came to Australia with not a lot of money or english knowledge, but you were still involved in quite a lot of charity work, why did you feel a need to do this?
I started working as a dentist when I first came to Australia, I would look for the signs of abuse, and just reach out to people, even if the person denied it was happening. The injuries people would come to me with as a dentist, you don’t get normally. Banging into a door doesn’t break your jaw, lip and teeth. I would constantly ask them to tell me the truth because, that there was no one in the room except me and them, because I believed I could help. I gave out my number to people and they told me they were fine, but I would say to them, “you know what, I would love to be wrong, but here is my number if you need me”. I have gone out, in the rain at 10pm, and had to call the police and ambulance, for some of these women. There were times they would even stay at my home.
It sounds like you approach these situations very practically, why is that?
Yes, I do. I don’t want to hurt their feelings so I am subtle with support, but I also don’t want to call them victims, because a victim is a sacrificial animal, and we are fighters, and survivors. We know we are emotionally, financially, and physically abused, but we still live in denial that this person loves us and needs us. We have this strong belief that we are actually part of it, and something bad is going to happen to that person which is why we can’t leave.
If someone comes to me a second time with a very obvious injury, I will tell them they need to get help, or they need to leave.
You’re on the verge of setting up your own charity, what will you aim to do through that?
I’ve been working with different NFP organisations for a few years now, where the organisation will gather people who need help, then we fix their teeth. They come in for one appointment at my clinic, and we do whatever can to help in that appointment, and we get to know their stories, which is right on their face. These people are right in front of you telling you that their husband burnt all their hair off, or they are scared they and their kids are at risk of being killed by their husband. Sometimes, I realise that these people haven’t worn colour in four years, and they wear only black. They haven’t smiled in five years, they don’t go out, they don’t have friends, they don’t work, and that’s what makes me realise that it’s not just about fixing teeth. It’s about restoring their life and confidence.
The aim of ReStore is that we take people on board, and what I can do as a professional is give them their confidence and their smile back. It makes it all worth it when I’ve seen people say to me, this is the first time I’ve worn red in five years, and I’m going out and I’m going to a job interview, because now I can confidently smile.
How does that make you feel when that happens?
There is no feeling that can describe that. They are happy and they are back on track with their life, and they can look after their kids. It’s the best feeling you can get.
At what point of your career did you realise you wanted to do this?
With ReStore, it was earlier this year. I do participate in beauty pageants as well, and earlier this year, I went to a Miss Earth competition and there was this little girl, who raised, door to door, $30,000 for cancer. And I do charity work, and I help people, and this little girl was so committed and it made me realise I should be doing whatever I could to help these victims so that they don’t fall back into a cycle of abuse. You give them their confidence, and help them back into society, and they will never go back, and I have seen those changes.
People might overlook the medical side and the cost of fixing these issues in domestic and family violence, how important is it that awareness is raised around this issue?
Broken teeth is the most ignored injury, but it’s the most common. It’s not just broken teeth too, it’s really important to educate women about general oral health.
I have seen women fall into patterns of binge drinking, and that doesn’t help your teeth either. Having bad teeth can really affect so many other parts of your self confidence, so it’s an important thing to consider.
I truly believe Australia is a perfect country. It’s a community-based, and we can make it so these people not only survive, but thrive. These people have gone through so much and are so strong, that they can actually conquer anything. We could be an example for the world.
There is a lot of debate and discussion around domestic violence at the moment, if there was one thing you could change about the way we talk about it, what would it be?
Action. We need to stop talking about it. We do all the meetings and gatherings, but we’re spending 90 per cent of our time talking about it and discussing it, and problems of it and the story behind it. I really think we need to put our teeth into it and start working! If we spent 90 per cent of the time doing things instead of talking about it, I know it would be a very different situation. Education is very important too and there has to be a really clear path towards a solution.
Do you feel positive about domestic violence advocacy?
I do. I’ve been living in Australia for over 10 years, and I feel like 2018 is a game-changing year. There are so many changes happening, and it’s not happening fast enough, but at least we are openly talking about it. I think one of the main priorities needs to be on education and changing those little kid’s attitudes from a young age, because that’s where it all starts.
If you are struggling with domestic or family violence, or this article has brought up any issues, call RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14