Bridging Cultures While Improving Dental Health

RAAF

For Flight Lieutenant Maryam Ferooz, storytelling proved to be a bridge between two cultures in supporting improved dental health.

As a dental officer in 2 Expeditionary Health Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Ferooz led a team providing dental care and training to remote First Nations peoples in Derby near RAAF Base Curtin, Western Australia.

Flight Lieutenant Ferooz reflected on the acute remoteness of the area and described Derby as a place where long mudflats and huge tides meet the iconic boab trees of the Kimberley.

“Some patients have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get to Derby, and when there isn’t a dentist they face an even larger, and more expensive, commute to Broome,” Flight Lieutenant Ferooz said.

“Not everyone can afford the travel, nor do they want to be so far from home, especially for things they dismiss as ‘just a toothache’.”

Flight Lieutenant Ferooz found it challenging at first to communicate with the patients about their dental concerns.

“Working with our Indigenous Liaison Officers, I started to change how I asked questions, and I found it made a significant difference in how open people were with me,” she said.

“For example, I found that using the word ‘hurt’ instead of ‘pain’ helped people share their needs.”

‘Working with our Indigenous Liaison Officers, I started to change how I asked questions, and I found it made a significant difference in how open people were with me.’

Flight Lieutenant Ferooz said the health challenges these remote patients faced were different to those seen in garrison, and that treatment of dental emergencies can often be complicated by larger challenges, such as heart disease and uncontrolled diabetes.

She also reflected on how her own cultural heritage helped her engage with First Nations communities in a more meaningful way.

“Sometimes, rather than answering my question directly, people would tell me a story, which might reference a family member or anecdote,” Flight Lieutenant Ferooz said.

“In Persian culture, storytelling is often passed through generations, weaving narratives that embody the essence of our identity. Similarly, among Indigenous Australians, songlines are integral to cultural heritage and passing knowledge.”

Flight Lieutenant Ferooz shared how the strong sense of community and hospitality was also evident in both Persian and First Nations cultures, including the importance of extended family interconnectedness and communal bonds.

“These similarities deepened my appreciation for the universality of human experiences and enhanced my ability to forge meaningful connections across diverse cultural landscapes,” she said.

“By recognising the distinctiveness of each community and honouring their traditions, I have been able to foster trust and collaboration and found participating in this exercise to be a profound privilege.”

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