Despite her own serious challenges including cancer and blindness, Liz Dawson is still creating enormous positive change in the dental and other industries. By Chris Sheedy
Every now and then in our careers we come across a person or a case that is, for whatever reason, completely unforgettable. Liz Dawson OAM has had such experiences more often than most of us and, in fact, that is what has kept her going through several decades of professionally and personally challenging moments.
The 77-year-old recalls, for instance, the moment when one client of The Salvation Army Dental Support Program in the ACT (which Dawson was responsible for creating) began to weep when she was told her turn had come on the dental waiting list. “That morning, when she had said to her seven-year-old, ‘Would you like me to come to assembly this morning?’ he’d said, ‘No, I don’t want you to come because your teeth are black’,” Dawson says.
The idea behind the Dental Support Program came to Dawson when she was volunteering as a welfare worker for a Salvation Army Community Service Centre in Canberra. A young woman came in asking for food and Dawson noticed she only had one tooth left in her top jaw.
“In the government clinic, there’s a mandatory co-payment of $38 for dental treatment,” Dawson says. “This fee is an incredibly damaging thing. When there are mums who can’t even afford to put food on the table for their kids, how on earth are they supposed to afford a $38 fee for a dental visit?
“This woman haunted me. I looked further into it and discovered her story was not an unusual one. Many parents, as a result of unemployment, domestic violence, drugs, disability, poverty, etc, sacrifice their own health in order to feed and clothe their kids. Then of course it’s a downwards spiral. One parent said to me, ‘I’ll never get a job while my teeth make me look like a monster.”
Rather than sitting back and complaining about the system, Dawson chose instead to change it. In 2006 she began her search for a dentist who would donate an amount of time each week to looking after the cases that the system was built to reject. Amazingly, that search took two long years but resulted in a wonderful relationship with Dr Colin Seaniger, who to this day (since October 2008) still gives up half a day each week to help the people who need it most.
There are now three Salvation Army Dental Support Programs in the ACT and surrounds, one centrally located in Civic, one across the border in Queanbeyan, NSW, and another that simply involves various dentists who offer whatever time they can to help the people still on the waiting list.
“So far through the program we have completed the dental work for 58 clients,” Dawson says. “That’s pretty amazing when you think of the state most of the patients’ teeth are in when they first enter the program. Currently 43 people are in the program being treated and there are another 20 on the waiting list, which is never longer than a few months.”
Dawson’s strength, resilience and ability to effect change are impressive considering her age alone. But add the other personal challenges she has overcome to bring her projects this far and her achievements move into the realm of the truly astonishing.
On the day Bite magazine met Dawson, she had just returned home from a chemotherapy session. What began as bowel cancer has now spread, meaning she measures the time she has left in months rather than years. Her doctor is trying a different mix of drugs in an attempt to keep the disease at bay for at least a little longer.
But that’s not all. In March 2011 Dawson lost most of her sight overnight. A case of temporal arteritis, which can attack blood vessels behind the eyes, caused headaches for several months. By the time the issue was properly identified after Dawson had been experiencing double-vision for a few days, it was too late. When she was raced to hospital, doctors were able to save just four per cent of vision in one eye.
“This all made me realise I wanted to do specific things,” she says. “On a personal level I wanted to find my best friend from high school, who I’d felt guilty about falling out of contact with. I did that and it was a great delight. I had also always wanted to be a drummer in a band, so my husband went out with me and we bought some drums, collected about 14 people into a band and we’re about to do a live performance. We’re called the Canberra Blind Society Grooves.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to do a little more good in the world, Dawson also joined the board of the Canberra Blind Society. Here she initiated a project to provide kits to Canberra hospitals to assist staff in understanding and managing the needs of blind and low-vision patients. In typical fashion, rather than allowing her blindness to become an obstacle in her life she instead found a way to spin it into a positive.
It’s a familiar pattern to those who know Dawson well. Decades ago as a teacher facing massive staff shortages, she initiated successful programs in gender equity and parent participation in the classroom to help solve some of the issues. She then turned her attention to class size itself, having once been put in charge of a class of 60 five-year-olds, and was personally responsible for a campaign that reduced class sizes in primary schools.
She names her husband (“He looks after me as if I’m the only other person in the world”), three daughters (“They flew in like Valkyries to look after me when I lost my sight”) and grandchildren (“My main drive in life right now is to be the best grandmother I can possibly be”) as her inspiration. But in fact it’s quite obvious that Dawson finds inspiration everywhere. Dawson has convinced her hairdresser Angelo Cataldo to donate his salon and staff several days a year, for example, on days when they would usually be enjoying days off, to style the hair of people who have never been able to afford such treatment. She has also been instrumental over the past few years in the establishment of Common Ground Canberra, a low-cost supportive housing initiative for people who have experienced chronic homelessness. This program has been funded by the ACT and federal governments largely due to Dawson’s unrelenting advocacy. Construction of 40 units in Canberra’s Gungahlin will be completed in 2014.
The tireless grandmother has also found a financial donor in the Snow Foundation, established in 1991 to benefit the disadvantaged community in Canberra, which is helping to bankroll the dental and homeless projects.
How the dental system works
The dental system that Dawson has set up, with valuable help from volunteers and from her friends at The Salvation Army, is as simple as it gets for those seeking dental procedures and could be replicated around Australia. The most difficult part of the process when it comes to setting up the program was actually attracting dentists to do the pro bono work.
“Once dentists are on board the process is set up to be very straightforward,” Dawson explains. “All people need to do is walk through the doors of Dickson Community Centre, or ring us, and they will be run through a quick budget assessment. The service, of course, is means tested. Then there will be some delay but ultimately everybody who needs help will get it. We ask just $20 from the patient so that they can feel some ownership of the process, but if they can’t afford that then The Salvation Army will cover the cost for them.
“The government dental clinic gives us a lot in terms of management and materials. The Snow Foundation donates $20,000, which helps us pay for dentures. Individuals also donate—a dental hygienist once donated $1000.
“But the best part of the process, other than the final result, is the way the people feel during the dental work. That’s what they tell us. They say they are amazed by the way they are treated, that for once they’re not treated like poor people, for once they’re not treated like second-class citizens. Many tell us how wonderful it is to be treated by Dr Seaniger, who works in such a non-judgemental way and works with his clients as a team, rather than having a typical doctor/patient relationship. Our patients tell us that it seems a little bit magical, simply because it makes them feel special for once.”
And in the end, offering a little comfort for those that need it most is what makes Dawson feel special too. If that was not the case then there is very little chance that she would have achieved so much in her truly inspirational life.
“I’m enjoying every day that I have left,” she says. “I am enormously grateful to all of the incredible people who have helped out along the way, from the people at The Salvation Army, to the wonderful volunteers who keep the services running, to my family members who provide me with a reason to battle illness and to the people whose faces and voices I have never forgotten—the people who really do need our help. I have absolutely no regrets, none at all.”