From Malawi to Mirfield, Nick O’Donovan is placing a smile on people’s faces.
The 46-year-old father of four is putting his 20-year experience of dentistry to good use by volunteering to bring an end to the suffering of people that endure tooth pain.
The effect of his labours is not merely aesthetic. It’s transformative in so many other ways.
And after working with hundreds of people in the village of Bulala in Malawi, he’s taking his skills on the road in Kirklees... in a mobile surgery run by the charity Dentaid.
“We are seeing some severely decayed teeth,” says the passionate dental surgeon, who runs his own practice in Dewsbury.
“In one session we saw 20 people in four hours. Thirteen of them needed extractions, and eight of those needed multiple extractions.”
Nick began his charity work two years ago when he travelled to Malawi to help equip a medical centre “and pulled out teeth for a week”. He followed up with a stint at the Real Junk Tooth Project, a six-month pilot project under the Dentaid umbrella providing emergency dental services in Dewsbury.
It led directly to Dentaid acquiring a mobile unit to provide what Nick describes as “a fully functioning dental surgery” that can be parked up at schools, community centres and outside Dewsbury Town Hall. Inside Nick provides what he calls “a fundamental service”: basic dental care.
“People were travelling long distances to get to us. The people that we deal with often cannot afford time off from work to go to the dentist, or they cannot afford private treatment.
“Our service is free. The dentists all work voluntarily. We also use it as a training model. The team is normally just three of us, with our receptionist Maariya Hussein organising the sessions.
“One lady I saw had two rotten lower teeth and had a golf ball-sized swelling under her jaw. She was in acute pain. If it had continued she would have had to go to hospital.”
Nick agrees that there is a parallel between his free surgery and the notion of food banks for people in poverty. And if the issue is political then he has his own thoughts on how the situation has been allowed to escalate.
“We used to see people like this before the NHS contract was changed in 2006. Pre-2006 you could turn up at an NHS dentist with a problem and they would deal with it. Now you cannot do that.
“Then you have people on low incomes that have bad teeth and they cannot afford treatment. Pain relief from toothache should be a basic service that is provided, and Dentaid’s motto is to eradicate tooth pain.”
Nick is regularly joined by fellow doctors Usman Majid, Sam Elwick, Remm Nashi, Haider Hussain, Nabeel Mughal, Adil Kasai and Jessica Talbot, plus upwards of 25 foundation dentists from the West Yorkshire Foundation Training Scheme at the Leeds Dental Institute, who receive on-the-job training.
Nick laughs when he considers why he began his charity work. “It tends to snowball,” he says. “Each time you do a project you ask how you can do it better. A dentist cares about people being in pain.
“But if I sat in my surgery doing check-ups and fillings for the next 20 years it would drive me up the wall. It’s something to do.
“My children have been on foreign trips to help people – building schools and that sort of thing. I couldn’t do that. I have another skill that I knew I could lend to the community round here and in Africa. I’m a doer, so that’s what I do.”
Through Dentaid Nick and his colleagues visit schools to give talks on dental hygiene and to give out free tubes of toothpaste. And he says there are plans to consolidate the Dentaid mobile surgery – paid for via a £7,000 grant from the former Dewsbury & Mirfield Local Committee – by sending it out further into the community.
“I’m more of a hub pulling other dentists into working voluntarily. It’s about giving up time. All it costs me is a bit of surgery time for the two weeks that the project is running. I’m happy to do that.”
Dentaid CEO Andy Evans said: “By working with Dentaid, Nick is helping some of the most vulnerable people in his community access the dental care they need.
“He is committed to helping as many people as possible out of dental pain and by taking our mobile dental unit to them he’s making a huge difference. Thanks to his generosity there are many more people in Dewsbury who are no longer suffering the misery of toothache and can get on with their lives.”