How this dentist is helping domestic violence victims
DENTIST Dr Sonia Sonia - yes, that's her real name - came to Australia 11 years ago from India.
She left her abusive father back home and armed herself with a dentistry degree in an attempt to start a new life overseas.
Soon she opened her own dentistry practice in Brisbane and found herself treating lots of women with injuries sustained while in abusive, domestic violence relationships.
She now manages three clinics and is about to launch a national not-for-profit organisation to help women take care of their oral health.
News.com.au spoke to Dr Sonia about her own experience with domestic violence and how fixing a woman's damaged teeth can often be the first step to helping her leave an abusive relationship.
Let's start with your name. Tell me about that.
They missed my surname on my passport at immigration when I first came to Australia. They missed it and they didn't think it was important. So when I came here they put me as Sonia Sonia and I loved it. So now I'm Dr Sonia Sonia.
How did you get into dentistry?
I'm from a middle-class Indian family. The safest job for a girl was a teacher or medicine. My mum has always struggled with her oral health. My mum is a very nervous patient.
I clearly remember that I used to go to the dentist with her when I was five or six and she used to scream and say, "It's hurting".
Going to the dentist was a very traumatic experience for her, but one time we went to this female dentist and my mum had an extraction done. She was in and out in seven minutes.
My mum couldn't believe that her tooth was gone and going to the dentist could be that good. I had seen her struggling and that pushed me into dentistry.
It is literally my mission to change the perception of dentistry. It doesn't have to be scary. You can relieve the anxiety if you talk to patients properly and turn around the whole experience for them.
What's the biggest hurdle in getting people to the dentist?
The anxiety is the biggest issue. People also say money, but anxiety is mainly what's stopping them from giving us a call, and previous bad experiences.
Now I have patients who fly from North Queensland, who come from the Gold Coast, WA. It's just the trust I have developed with my patients. It can be a very pleasant experience. It can be a life changing and rewarding experience.
Many of your patients are in abusive relationships. How do you navigate their treatment?
We try to focus on observing at the whole person not just the teeth or the mouth.
You're in a patient's private space so you develop that trust. They slowly open up to you.
Sometimes they're scared and they say, "I don't like things being shoved in my mouth". They don't like someone else touching them, it's triggering for them.
This is not just about going to the dentist, there is something hiding behind that. You can see the emotion on their faces. You can see it in their body language. They're getting anxious and red faced and their palms are sweaty.
Sometimes you just have to keep asking questions.
Say someone comes in with broken teeth and with bruising. They might try their best to hide it, but we know this is not normal. You didn't get this from bumping into a door, you didn't fall on the floor. There are other marks and injuries aside from your mouth.
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What do you do when you can tell things are really bad at home?
I had a lady who came in and she came in again and again with broken teeth. The third time she came in she was almost physically disabled. I said, "There is something really wrong. You need to tell me what's happened. I can help you" and she said, "You can't help me".
I said, "You need to get out of there, whatever your situation is, it's temporary. You can end up in serious harm." And we call the police.
Sometimes I literally give them my number and say, "Ring me whenever you're in need" and they have called me at 10pm at night and I've brought them to my home and called the police.
It's really important for us to develop that trust so that when they do ring us, I say, "Go to a friend's place, visit a family member, go to the police" and they listen.
Tell me about your own experience with domestic violence.
I was 15 years old when suddenly one night I ended up copping it from my dad, when I was trying to protect my mum. It went on for a year.
My dad was a policeman and we couldn't go to anyone to report it. People knew. Relatives knew, neighbours knew. They could hear it. But they didn't do anything.
I was very good at studying and my Mum said to me, "This is your weapon. Go and use it."
I would study in the middle of the night and do my exams because that was the only way out. Once I went into the uni, I got the status of being a doctor and a dentist and that stopped Dad. He apologised. He said, "I don't know why I did this". He was a great dad. I remember him taking me to school and cooking with me. What happened to that man?
Mum and I kept thinking, "What are we doing wrong? What is triggering him? What is wrong with us?"
I think millions of women ask these questions: "Why are you doing this? We're your family. You love us".
But there is never anything wrong with us. There is something wrong with them and they need to sort it out. He passed away a long time ago and we forgave him for ourselves so we can go on with our lives and be at peace. I do miss him for that caring Dad that he was.
Your job must be incredibly rewarding.
We have women whose partners have killed all of their self esteem. They say, "He told me that I was ugly, that I'm good for nothing. I'm so ashamed, I can't go out."
We don't have to completely replace their teeth or give them veneers or anything, sometimes we just fix things up a bit.
When I give them the mirror to look at their mouths, they can't stop smiling. They've gone out and got job interviews and they're in the workforce.
It's not just about restoring their teeth. It's about restoring their smile, hope and confidence.
I am happy if I've done something is going to help them and makes them feel good. It gives them hope.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, they can call 1800 RESPECT, the 24 hour domestic and family violence counselling service. In an emergency call 000 immediately.