From Baghdad to The Bearded Tooth Fairy
Hassan Asad looks back at his journey from growing up in pre-war Iraq to launching the Deciduous Facebook group during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In 1994 I was born in Baghdad, Iraq. I was a fat little child running round in my dishdasha (a loose, long-sleeved garment worn in middle-eastern countries) naïve and loving life.
At the age of four ‘Operation Desert Fox’ had commenced and the ongoing feud between Saddam and the west was escalating. Not many people remember things when they were four but I will never forget the air raids going off and my family frantically rushing into the cars as we fled to the outskirts of Baghdad. At the time my mum made me play a game. I remember thinking that this game was boring. It was only when I got older that I realised this game was to stop me looking through the car windows at the flashlights going off.
Middle Eastern families are big and they like to talk. In the background my parents were planning on leaving Iraq. My dad was worried about the sate of the country and questioned the future of their children. My dad left first with my aunt and uncle before us, but this was done all under secret. Any concerns raised by Saddam’s police would result in horrific consequences. My brother, Hussain was born, but sadly my father missed this.
Crossing the border
On one thick, desert night I was smuggled into an orange and white Cadillac. You could describe it as a kidnapping, only that my mum was the kidnapper. Little did I know, but that would be my last journey in Iraq as the car crossed the border into neighbouring Jordan, Amman.
Amman was a haven for Iraqis and the easiest exit path into the ‘promise land’ of Europe. Two things about Amman you need to know:
Google them and you will recognise both of these Middle Eastern delicacies.
A cherished memory during this time are the escalators that Hussain and myself would spend hours on in a Safeway megastore they had in Amman. I was amazed at the possibility of a moving staircase.
The first few weeks were a struggle. We were renting an unfurnished apartment and money was low as we waited for money transfers from my dad who was in the UK. The first few weeks my brother and I slept on a make shift bed made from plastic crates that held fruit and vegetables with a mattress shoved on top. My mum slept on a mattress on the floor.
I didn’t attend reception at the time but became friends with the locals near our apartments. My days were spent playing football in the streets and we were soon joined by my cousins who were on the same journey. The invention of the brick Nokia mobile phone allowed us to communicate with my dad in London.
Life in the UK
Over half a year later, we all boarded a plane for the very first time, finally going to London. My dad, uncle and aunt were the ‘welcome party’ on the other side. It was cold when we landed, I was confused and apprehensive. This cold place would now be home.
The early stages of school were a struggle. Daily I would be escorted out with a few other classmates and taken to small class room where a teacher would patiently go round exhausting all means to help us improve our reading and writing. I managed to pick up the language quickly and towards the latter stages of primary school the classes became less frequent, before finding them to be more like punishment. Looking back at it now, I believe this was due to the weekly reminder that I was an immigrant and would never be on the same level as my school friends. I was naïve, those classes were a blessing.
During secondary school things were different. I was more confident, my grades were improving and my parents started the Asian success propaganda. It worked.
My dream at this age was to become a footballer. But my dad told me I wasn’t good enough, which hurt, but was needed. My other dream job was a pilot. But I remembered horrific scenes from 9/11 and the terrible Iraq War. Those events made me think they would never let an Iraqi Muslim be a pilot. Obviously things have changed but that career path came to an abrupt halt in my childhood days. Very early in year nine I remember telling everyone I wanted to be a dentist. Everyone thought that was weird.
Choosing a career
Coming from a Middle Eastern background I don’t think I had much choice anyway. Career pathways are drummed into you when you are small: ‘Habibi you must either be a doctor or a doctor or even a doctor. Dentistry or law is ok too’.
A lot of what I have achieved is down to my parents and the sacrifices they made for me.
My secondary school was a local comprehensive, Hollyfield School. Pupils were from all walks of life, this helped shape the core of my communication skills crucial in my career. Teams for football matches in the playground were based on your ethinicity and more than once I found myself to be in the middle. I was muslim but wasn’t ‘Asian enough’ as I am Arab. But I wasn’t ‘British-British’.
I worked hard for my GCSE’s and it paid off. I managed to achieve the highest GCSE results at the school and this was my first step in pursuit of the dental dream.
The time came to apply for university and I really did want to be a dentist. Neither of my parents knew a thing about dentistry, no one was from a medical background in my family. I had to work hard to get the appropriate help to make a strong application.
I will never forget my Birmingham interview. The panel played ‘good cop, bad cop’ and gave me a grilling. The last question was a simple: ‘What do you like to do in your spare time?’ I replied by saying I like to go out with my friends and go to Nandos. One of the interviewers laughed whilst the other looked at me in disgust. But I got the offer. I put Leeds University as number one though.
Every dental graduate would tell you their university was the best. But Leeds is the best. I learnt the ABC of dentistry, the Krebs cycle (which I can safely say has not helped me do a crown preparation) and that people in the north are friendlier. I also got introduced to gravy and chips, which was bizarre but delicious at the same time.
It wasn’t until university that I got my freedom. I went from sharing a room with my brother to having my own house with my best mates and a student loan that I managed awfully. They say university is the best time of your life and I would slowly nod to that statement. Exams were stressful but it gave me a sense of worth and structure.
One of the worst parts of dental school were probably the interviews for foundation dental training. I didn’t enjoy the process and the thought a 20-minute interview determining what part of the country you would end up in was a bit rough. Luckily, I managed to rank a place near home so I was pleased.
Five years later, I managed to get my BDS with distinction. Graduation was the best day of my life. Like many other of my friends, it is difficult to share those emotions, especially for my family. Normally you bring your parents and maybe siblings and partner – my parents invited my two aunts, uncle; one flew in from Dubai, my Nan and cousins. It was an Iraqi entourage but it was brilliant.
I began foundation training, super keen, smiling like a Cheshire cat to every patient that came into the chair. We were allocated one hour to do our first exams. I used every second of that examination. I remember the patient saying that was the best examination he had ever received. My nurse looked at me with an unconvincing smile.
As the months went on I started to get more comfortable with dental treatment but still looked at my composites and compared them to the Instagram gurus. Theirs like teeth, mine like potatoes. The weekly training days and conferences with the other London and KSS schemes gave me the opportunity to meet more dentists.
After tossing multiple coins I decided to apply for DCT. I did surprisingly well in the SJT but when it came to the interview I got told my communication skills were poor.
I got a place but I went down the associate path, which was the best decision I have made. Towards the later stages of foundation training, myself and two friends went over to the Vancouver, Canada to present some research at the IADR. To anyone interested or wants to be involved in research – do it! I managed to visit one of the most beautiful places. I reflected so many times, that year I felt like a walking mirror.
Foundation training is where I learnt that there was more to dentistry than knowledge. The application of this coupled with managing patients in a real life environment where money does matter was difficult to grasp. But with experience you begin to understand and value your worth as a clinician.
Launching the Bearded Tooth Fairy
As a GDP I wanted to move onto all the fancy treatments. The word E.max was something I got excited by. But I never got taught how to do them at university. I decided to take the financial hit and invest in a PGCert in aesthetic and restorative dentistry with Aspire, which has changed the way I practise dentistry clinically and given me an insight into the power of emotional intelligence.
I reluctantly began to understand the dream of being a dentist was somewhat clouded. The golden age of dentistry had passed and there were many barriers in the way for the newly-qualified dentist.
I toyed with the idea of starting an Instagram page, but like many I was anxious exposing my work. I was in no position to start posting veneer cases, I was just getting to grips with using a rubber dam! So I decided to go for it and launched the Bearded Tooth Fairy. For me Instagram has been an asset for networking but also an invaluable tool for learning. There will always be a case better than yours and always something you could have done differently or improved on. But that is dentistry.
Dentistry is in turmoil. A lack of leadership, direction and guidance sought from Facebook groups has only left myself and other dental professionals lost. This virus has changed the world we live in and this will have a ripple effect through the way healthcare and dentistry is delivered. It is difficult to not get sucked into the negativity.
During this spare time I have watched dozens of webinars and refreshed my knowledge. After speaking to a few colleagues we began thinking about starting up a Facebook group. The Deciduous Facebook group was launched. The team felt that amongst our colleagues and peers, there was a cry for help to create an environment that promoted learning and direction without the shark pit that other dental groups had. We have big plans to grow and create a hub for all young dental professionals.
Triaging over the phone has been a nightmare. Like many colleagues, I have felt hopeless. However, we have all banked countless CPD and spent time doing things we would never have done. I am not sure when we will return to work, but I hope it is sooner rather than later. Until then, I hope we all recover from this virus and a massive well done and thank you to all the healthcare workers involved.
Dentistry is more than just a job, but a journey that will always resonate with me.