Dental students feel inspired, grateful for new pathways
Ex-physio has ‘big goal’ to improve access to dental care
Terrell Okotcha has experienced the severe pain of being injured on the football field.
But he says the agony he suffered from untreated dental issues was worse.
“I’ve had a torn ACL [knee ligament],” recalls the former high-school athlete. “I’ve had musculoskeletal pain. But dental pain can be 10-out-of-10 pain.”
The Winnipeg-born Okotcha is a first-year dental student at the Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry. When he was growing up, his immigrant parents were focused on essentials for the family. He didn’t receive the oral health care he now realizes he needed.
He doesn’t blame his parents, but he had esthetic, functional and decay-related dental problems that affected his self-confidence as a teen and young adult. Now that he’s had orthodontic work and extensive dental treatment, he’s passionate about reaching others who need access to dental care.
“A big goal of mine is to raise oral health awareness and help individuals across the board have good access to care,” he says. “I want to help people in the community take control of their own oral health.”
The 29-member Dentistry Class of 2025, to which Okotcha belongs, and the eight-member International Dentist Degree Program Class of 2023 were officially welcomed to the Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry at the Opening Assembly in September. The 26-member Dental Hygiene Class of 2023 was also welcomed at its own assembly.
For Okotcha, an inspiring highlight of the event was a speech by Niznick himself. The alumnus and dental implant pioneer, the college’s biggest benefactor, spoke via Zoom to the incoming students.
“He’s a world-renowned dental practitioner. It was like seeing a superstar and having him address you personally,” says Okotcha. “It was definitely an honour.”
One of Niznick’s pieces of advice was “Be a lifelong student.” That resonated with Okotcha, who graduated from UM in 2019 with his master’s in physical therapy, practised for less than a year, took additional undergraduate courses with the goal of getting accepted into dentistry, and has now attained that goal.
“Physio is a great profession,” he says. “But I felt that dentistry would ultimately fulfil me more.”
Okotcha says his physiotherapy background has transferable benefits to dentistry. “There’s a natural tendency as a dentist to hunch over and round your back. I’m super-mindful of ergonomics, and I think that directly translates.
“We also learned a lot in physiotherapy about patient-centred care, communication and interprofessional collaboration. Those are invaluable skills that can be brought to any health-care profession. I have so much to learn, but I have that foundation.”
Dentist from Poland grateful for UM route to Canadian accreditation
Polish-trained dentist Magdalena (Magda) Szmurlo was six months pregnant with her first child when she interviewed for the International Dentist Degree Program (IDDP) at the Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry.
She says she was met with nothing but support from the faculty and staff. They assured her she’d be able to manage parenthood and dental school.
“I received a lot of warm words,” she remembers. “It’s hard, but I’m able to study and be a mother.”
The competitive program accepts a handful of internationally educated dentists each year, adding them to an existing class for the final two years of the four-year degree program so they’re ready for Canadian accreditation.
Szmurlo practised dentistry for about three years in Poland before immigrating to Ontario in 2015 with her husband, a Polish-Canadian nurse. As her English improved, she was able to attend college and obtain work as a dental assistant.
When she received her acceptance to the UM program, she was overjoyed. “I was crying,” she remembers. “I called my mom in Poland and told her.
“I’m really grateful that I got this chance to be a Canadian dentist. I feel really happy to be part of this university.”
One key difference in the profession between her home country and Canada, Szmurlo says, is that in Poland she was responsible for a wider range of procedures, including taking X-rays and scaling teeth. “Here, you really work as a team. Each person has a specific role.”
She appreciates getting more exposure to prosthodontics – specifically crowns and bridges – at UM than she received in her Polish training.
Szmurlo’s baby daughter is now 11 months old. A close bond has formed among the eight dentists in the IDDP Class of 2023, most of whom are also parents. The group includes dentists trained in Brazil, India, Iran and Nigeria.
“From the first moment, I realized I have new friends – friends with a dentistry background who really understand my situation,” Szmurlo says. “We have a WhatsApp group and we’re always chatting. We’re really supportive.”
Officially donning her white coat and reciting the college’s Community Code – a pledge of integrity, respect and responsibility – at the Opening Assembly was emotional for Szmurlo.
“I was really moved,” she says. “In my country, we didn’t have this ceremony. I was proud of myself that I’m experiencing this.”