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PEOPLE John & Jan Owen
John & Jan
Creating healthier Kimberley communities, one tooth at a time
e’d never owned a toothbrush,
let alone received regular dental
care. The nine-year-old’s face
was swollen. His chronic
pain stopped him attending
school. At night he kept his family awake
with anguished crying.
“This lad was on a ‘make-believe’ waiting list,”
says Perth specialist orthodontist Dr John Owen
AM, relating the story of one of many cases of
dental neglect in the Kimberley’s remote Aboriginal
communities. Encounters like these have fuelled
his quest to improve dental care in the North-West.
John and his wife, Jan, a dental nurse and
homeopath, have been making regular, self-funded
visits to the Kimberley since their passion for the
region and its people was sparked in 2004. For
his 50th birthday John piloted his own helicopter
across the centre and around the top end, then
down the coast of Western Australia.
They later returned to the Kimberley to
visit schools with the Madjitil Moorna choir
– a group of indigenous and non-indigenous
singers to which Jan belongs. Both times they
were awestruck by the beauty of the region, but
their snapshots also told another story.
Angry abscesses, rotten teeth and diseased
gums do not belong in a photographic scrapbook of
a trip to the North West. But these are the photos
that remind John and Jan of the work that’s yet
to be done. “When we went up with the choir the
first time [in 2009], the school [Halls Creek District
High] begged us to do something, as they hadn’t
had a school dental ser vice in two years,” says Jan.
When they screened 133 children from Halls
Creek under the ag e of 11, they found that 51
required urgent dental care. Another 23 required
treatment within six months. “We realised
we couldn’t accept this situation and not do
something about it,” says John.
Their response has developed into a highly
coordinated organisation determined to make a
difference. The Kimberley Dental Team (KDT)
is a not-for-profit, non-g overnment organisation,
consisting of a team of visiting volunteers from
the dental profession. The team works together
words Heather Zubek
FROM LEFT Jan and John Owen use mascot Craig
the Crocodile to demonstrate correct teeth-cleaning
techniques; volunteer intern Moses Lee (now a graduate
dentist) makes records while volunteer dentist Daniel
Cocker examines a child’s teeth; three generations of
Owens – Peter, John and Ray – with the KDT helicopter.
with Dental Health Ser vices Western Australia,
the Centre of Rural and Remote Oral Health,
University of Western Australia and Kimberley
Aboriginal Medical Ser vices, to provide
additional and often urgent ser vices to the
remote communities of the East Kimberley.
These are the communities that are the most
disadvantag ed by the health system through
lack of access, limited staff and distance.
As a specialist orthodontist and dental
practitioner, John has been shocked and disappointed
at the state of dental health in remote communities.
“When you have young kids who are lethargic
for five or six years [due to dental disease] and they
have to be brought down to Perth and have as many
as 14 teeth extracted under general anaesthetic, there
is obviously something very wrong with the medical
and dental health system,” he says.
“After a while these kids think this type of pain
is normal. It’s not a quantum leap, knowing that
antibiotics and painkillers alone don’t solve dental
problems, to imagine that people look for alternate
substances to self-medicate their pain.”
A daunting task lies ahead for this couple
and their team of volunteers. “When you have
advanced dental disease you can’t eat properly, you
can’t sleep, you can’t think,” says John. “Often in
conjunction with chronic ear infections, you can’t
even hear properly. How can kids be expected to
learn in class when they’re coping with all this?”
He says the Education Department of
WA needs to take the reality on board. “The
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