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The Unspoken Extraordinaire

Touched by no words. By Dr. Safiyyah Yunos ( Sasa)

I am an ordinary dentist, I am still a fresh caught fish in the dental industry. I have yet to find a new cure nor have I discovered a new syndrome, but I have experienced something out of the ordinary that is worth sharing. I am privileged to be working in a private dental clinic that offers free basic treatments to the special needs community, this bridged a gap between us and the local community in the area. Though it is a humble community, they have shown me a side of life that is priceless.

Throughout being a small fish in this big sea, I’ve had a fair share of exposure to sign language during my undergraduate studies in Uitm by Dr. Mas Suryalis. Besides that, I attempted taking up a free online course from Openlearning.com during MCO which i’ve yet to complete (oops). Furthering into my career for a few years, it never occured to me that it is something of a necessity. I am sure I am not the only one, with that being said, please allow me to hopefully change the reader’s perspectives with my sharings as how it changed mine.

In the beginning, having to face one of the largest barriers as a healthcare practitioner- communication has humbled me. We communicated with pen & paper, using chat boxes on phones, pulling out random signs with our hands to explain and discuss. It was extraordinarily difficult to explain procedures and risks thoroughly. Sometimes it is a breeze but there are instances where they struggled to write and couldn’t understand some words that we use. There was a day that I am not proud of, I struggled to communicate that caused my patient to become more confused. It resulted in my patient coming back with his wife to be my moderator. At that moment I thought to myself, how does one in great pain come to me seeking help, but the doctor is unable to understand and communicate? I felt so ashamed and helpless. That was a turning point for me, something has to change.

Slowly with time and experiences (& multiple corrections from my own patients), I’ve started learning simple signs – thank you, you’re welcome, pulling out teeth, dental fillings. Though there is still much to learn, I noticed even signing a simple “you’re welcome”, I could notice their eyes lit up with excitement. To reflect back, when was the last time someone looked up to our day-to-day “thank you”? When was the last time our words were thoroughly heard and appreciated? It often left me pondering, are they often left excluded?

Entering this learning journey, it has opened my eyes to many more gems. One lesson I learnt is that; we don’t need words to be able to express gratitude. Believe it or not, the best gratitude I received from a patient was not via words, a gift, or a hamper; it was from signs that I struggled to understand. The best warmth and compliments was from a person who couldn’t give me any words. Expressions were loud but yet unspoken. I spent a good 40 minutes doing a complex filling to this charming man in his late 40’s. Once I was done, I was worried if he was experiencing any pain but to my surprise he was more worried for me. He signaled to ask if my arm is sore, honestly that was my first time a patient asked me such a question. He continued to express that the session was comfortable, he almost fell asleep, he experienced no pain and he expressed that i did a good job. He was even able to sneak in a quick compliment. The amount of gratitude, the bright smiles, his laughter brighten up the room and our day. It humbled me. Imagine we could express with a thousand words but how little do we do that? His level of expressions given his disabilities just puts those with perfect abilities to shame.

Have we ever wondered about children with deaf and mute parents? In my experience, I’ve noticed that they are well eloquent, well mannered, intelligent and confident from a very tender age. Some might have to mature ahead of their peers as their parents and sometimes siblings would depend on them to bridge the communication gap. I’ve met a 5 years old boy that attended the entire session with great eloquence, it was as if I was discussing with a full adult. Even when I was explaining to the mother in great detail, the child was fully curious and attentive, wanting to be a part of the discussion and decision making. As much as it was impressive, I wish as their healthcare giver i could be as connected to the parents and help them feel more included during their children’s appointments.

One other eye opening event was issuing dentures. I had the previlige to issue a partial acrylic denture to this lovely, bright young lady. I remember wondering how it would differ in assessing fitting and occlusion of their denture? How do we ask for phonations? Questions along those lines. To my absolute surprise, I didn’t have to ask, I didn’t even get to assess. Even from trying on stage, the minute she tried it on, she knew exactly what needed trimming, which point is higher, how protruded a tooth was set. The most impressive bit? During issuing, she explained to me that biting motion is fine, but when she glides sideways it is uncomfortable- alerting me to the canine-guided occlusion of the denture. She watched me trimmed like a hawk, pointing very specific points, to how much and how little. I fixed it exactly as instructed and it came out absolutely perfect & she left satisfied and happy. I have never enjoyed issuing a denture that much, it was a delight watching Da Vinci cracking his own codes.

I am now a firm believer that sign language should start becoming our universal language as it is a tool to converse across borders. The deaf and mute community shouldnt be disconnected for something they can’t control and we shouldn’t be isolated from all the gems that they carry. I hope this would inspire you to learn and practice sign language, if not the whole course but at least little communicative tidbits. May everyone experience this amazing side of the community, it is truly heartwarming and a privilege of mine to be a part of it even if it was just a fraction of a time. It is truly so special but yet so foreign to our everyday mundanity as a dentist.

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