Dr Nahid Sayma—at home and away

Nahid Sayma

Photo: Adam Taylor

Dr Nahid Sayma’s journey from Bangladesh to Botswana to Blacktown has come full circle—she is now working to improve the oral health of children in the slums of Dhaka. By Kerryn Ramsey

When Dr Nahid Sayma became the first dentist from Bangladesh to be accredited and registered in Australia, she was thrilled but a little uneasy. Even though she had set up her own practice in Sydney’s western suburbs, Dr Sayma never forgot the vulnerable people of her youth—those living in urban slums and rural villages in Bangladesh.

“I really needed to do something because it was haunting me. I grew up in a poor country and now I had such a good life for me and my family,” says the dentist, who was originally from the town of Khulna. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything for them. I had to do something for my people.”

Her ‘good life’ was centred around her civil engineer husband and their three sons, aged 22, 18 and eight, as well as her successful business. Her first practice, Blacktown Dental Surgery, which opened in 2009, was an instant success and she soon expanded to a second clinic, Beautiful Smile Dental Surgery, in Merrylands. Dr Sayma speaks three languages—Bengali, Hindi and English—which is a relief for many patients who hadn’t been able to communicate with other local practitioners.

While working at her practices was challenging and satisfying, she was still determined to improve oral health for underprivileged people in her home country of Bangladesh. The country has 7000 registered dentists for 160 million people. This means that, on average, there is one dentist for 22,800 people. While a large percentage of the dentists prefer staying in large cities and towns, the majority of the population are rurally based, making it difficult to access dental care.

In 2011, Dr Sayma arranged an informal get-together of 30 Bangladeshi dentists in Sydney. She joined with Drs Abdul Awal and Firoz Iqbal to create the Bangladeshi Dentists Forum. But it was a Sydney dentist, Dr Sandra Meihubers, who brought her goal to fruition when they met in 2013.

It was undoubtedly a meeting of minds as Dr Meihubers had been a champion for the underprivileged for the past four decades, covering the Australian outback, Timor, Nepal and Bangladesh. Their first encounter was a life-changing experience as Dr Sayma explained the dire situation.

“I was crying so much, I couldn’t even talk,” recalls Dr Sayma. “But after our meeting, Sandra could instantly see what we could do.”

“There were hundreds of people attending our dental camps and we had children lining up from the early morning. Originally we brought a portable dental chair and most of the gear from Australia. Now it’s a proper clinic.”—Dr Nahid Sayma

Dr Meihubers also remembers this encounter. “Nahid hadn’t done any of this type of community-based work, so I gave her some thoughts of how I would approach a program. We have been working together ever since, partnering our respective skills, experiences and contacts.”

Nahid SaymaTheir first visit to the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, was to lay the groundwork for establishing a primary care dental program. After building a relationship with the NGO Forum for Public Health and Rotary Clubs of Dhaka and Dee Why (NSW), as well as a local dental team, they launched the AusBangla Care for Dental (ABCD) volunteer program in August 2015. This program focuses on monthly visits by the local dental team to schools in the Mirpur slum area in Dhaka, visiting two to three target schools. Drs Sayma and Meihubers and two other Australian dentists—Drs Hans Raets and Yvonne Huijser van Reenen—joined with the local partners to participate in dental camps both in Mirpur and the rural communities of Brahmanbaria and Sylhet.

By July 2016, the ABCD program had examined and treated more than 3133 people, mainly school children. “There were hundreds of people attending our dental camps and we had children lining up from the early morning,” recalls Dr Sayma. “Originally we brought a portable dental chair and most of the gear from Australia. Now it’s a proper clinic.”

Dr Meihubers recalls: “We all worked long and hard through the hot, steamy days in the camps. Our partners, the local volunteers and the field staff were so enthusiastic. It was so inspirational working with them.” At one stage, the team had looked after 160 patients, and managed to place 175 fillings and extract 65 teeth in just two days.

The ABCD program continues to employ local dental staff to run the monthly dental camps in slum areas and schools. The program also welcomes international volunteer dental teams to provide outreach dental care in rural villages.

Dr Sayma admits that it’s a different way of living when she spends time in the slum areas. She grew up with her parents and three siblings in the middle-class area of Khulna—an eight-hour drive from the capital. Born in 1968, she was just a toddler when the Bangladesh War of Independence began in March 1971. The armed conflict between West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) lasted for nine months. According to various publications, between 300,000 and 500,000 people were killed, although the Bangladesh government claims the figure is as high as three million.

“Although I was too young to remember it, I’m aware of the consequences,” says Dr Sayma. “So many people had to go through hard times.” Her lawyer father was politically active so the whole family had to hide around the country.

“There were only 15 dentists in the whole [of Botswana], so there was a huge demand.”—Dr Nahid Sayma

Her kindness and patience comes largely from her mother, who was an English teacher at a primary school. “I was a shy child but I was a voracious reader. I always studied diligently,” says Dr Sayma who was only 21 when her mother passed away. “She wasn’t well and things were tough but reading was the one thing that kept me going.”

When she decided to study dentistry, she had to travel to Dhaka as it was the only university in the country. Only 16 females were eligible for admission and Dr Sayma was thrilled and relieved once she was accepted. During her university days, she met Tariqur, a civil engineer student who soon become her husband.

Dr Sayma graduated in 1992, and then moved to the African country of Botswana for work. “There were only 15 dentists in the whole country, so there was a huge demand,” says the practitioner who worked at a private clinic in Gaborone run by three European dentists.

Nahid SaymaShe also joined the Association of Medical Mission for Botswana, which was a collaboration of the governments of Canada and Botswana. “We would pack everything and travel to different countrysides to help patients who had swelling or pain. Looking back, I have no idea how many extractions I used to do each day. Many of the local people had been waiting for months to see a dentist. It really opened up my eyes.”

After the birth of their first child, the couple decided to move to New Zealand in 1997. This was followed by a move to Australia. Dr Sayma started working at the Ryde Hospital Dental Department as a dental assistant, as well as studying for the Australian Dental Council examination.

She completed it with flying colours but went through a difficult time when completing her exams in 2002. She had to do five months of clinical training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, while her husband and sons were in Sydney. During that time, she was also working on a Master’s degree in public health at the University of Sydney.

“My heart just filled when I got my post-graduate degree,” recalls Dr Sayma. “It had been a tough year—I was studying in Melbourne but my husband and boys were in Sydney. I used to fly home almost every weekend.”

After working at various practices in the Blue Mountains and Parramatta, as well as travelling to rural Australia, Dr Sayma opened her own practices, Blacktown Dental Surgery and Beautiful Smile Dental Surgery.

Building the practices and looking after her three sons meant that Dr Sayma had little time to visit her family in Bangladesh for many years. She was devastated when both her father and eldest brother passed away but she was determined to support her other siblings—two brothers and a sister. “In our country, our family bond is very strong,” she explains. “These days, Dr Sayma gets to spend time with her siblings after her yearly stints with the ABCD program.

At her Sydney practices, she has also come up with a solution to improve Bangladeshi dentists’ careers in Australia. She mentors both qualified dentists and students. “I know how difficult it was to get work here so I offer them plenty of experience and advice. I give them a job and then they start working at other clinics.

“Initially, their English is not good. They can’t communicate well and they’re not well versed in the Australian standards. I have 25 dentists working here at different times. They travel from different cities and even different states—this is an ideal practice to launch their careers and to help them to adapt in Australia.”

For Dr Sayma, her love of Bangladesh and Australia is apparent. She’s thrilled that the patients at her practices are “50/50”—half are from different countries while the other half were born in Australia. “A lot of my patients support ABCD, regularly giving donations and putting the word out,” she says with pride.

And her biggest supporters are her children. Her eldest son, Nabhan, has one more year to complete his medical degree at the University of New South Wales while her middle son, Shiyan, has already completed his first year of a medical degree at the University of Tasmania. Both are planning to use their medical skills when volunteering at the ABCD. Like mother, like sons.

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