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Easing pain and fear: The heartwarming experience of paediatric dentistry

Posted by Jane Doucet on November 24, 2023 in News
Renee Ingram (left) and Ellie Wedlake (right) are the two paediatric GPR residents for 2023-24


Growing up in Halifax, Ellie Wedlake (DDS’23) had a lot of dental work done, including braces and an implant. Along the way, she talked to a few of her dentists about what their workday entailed, which sparked an interest in applying to Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry.

"I love that dentistry is a mix of science and art, that creativity of problem solving and deciding what to do with a tooth that needs to be repaired. Every tooth is different and like a small sculpture," says Ellie. "When I decided on dentistry, I only applied to Dal. It has a great reputation, and friends of friends recommended Dal. Plus, all of my family is in Halifax, and I want to stay here."

Now, Ellie is one of two dentists working on a year-long paediatric general practice residency (GPR), a Faculty of Dentistry program based at the IWK Health Centre that will wrap up in June 2024. Her background as a ballet, modern, and jazz dancer and dance teacher – while growing up, and at Acadia while studying biology and post-undergrad at Dance Fredericton in New Brunswick – serves her well when it comes to treating children. Her teaching experiences help her relate to children and describe concepts to them on their level.

"Each one is so different and amazing," she says. "When a little kid is in pain or scared, and at the end of treatment they say that wasn’t bad at all and they thank me, it’s heartwarming. My goal is to ensure that they have a positive experience so they’ll continue to visit dentists as adults."

Treating children with complex medical histories and special needs is challenging but incredibly rewarding. In the run of a day at the IWK, Ellie could see young patients with varying behavioural and/or medical diagnoses, such as autism spectrum disorder, cardiac disorders, or cancer. "I love working with kids, and I want to treat lots of them as a dentist," she says. "I really enjoy the complex treatment planning that comes with working with primary teeth."

Making patients comfortable

Renee Ingram is the other paediatric GPR dentist at the IWK. Unlike Ellie, however, she never had fillings, braces, or any other major dental work during her childhood in Quill Lake, Saskatchewan. In fact, she was lucky enough to need only regular cleanings. Her father was a farmer, and she knew that wasn’t the career path for her. Her mother was a lab and X-ray technician, and there were other health-care workers in her family, so in high school she started exploring medicine, physiotherapy, pharmacy, optometry, and dentistry.

"I really wanted to be a pharmacist, but I applied and didn’t get in," she says. "During my undergrad, I studied physiology and pharmacology, which I enjoyed. I stumbled upon dentistry, but I fell in love with it almost immediately. I love chatting with my patients and making them more comfortable."

In dental school at the University of Saskatchewan, Renee enjoyed treating kids, singing songs and playing games with them to ease their anxiety. But she saw paediatric patients only once a week, so it was a limited experience – and she wanted more. After one of her professors recommended Dal’s GPR program, she talked to some people who had gone through it. "They said you’ll learn so much and gain so much," she says. "I liked Halifax, so I only applied to Dal. I put all my eggs in one basket!"

Like Ellie, Renee is also a dancer. She started highland dancing when she was three years old and ran a dance school in Quill Lake from age 15 to 21. Today, she still dances for fun. Teaching dance to kids helped her learn to communicate with them on their level. "I’m also the oldest of five, and I have too many cousins to count," she says, laughing. "I grew up babysitting, so it comes very naturally to me to take care of children."

Options for the future

At the IWK, Ellie and Renee conduct new patient exams, treatment, and follow-up in the referral-based practice, supervised by the paediatric dentists who work at the hospital. The pair shares a desk in a small office, and while they see different patients, they look over charts together and discuss cases.

"We sit next to each other, and we became fast friends very quickly," says Ellie. "When we have a tough day, we’re there for each other." Renee can’t imagine doing the GPR solo. "I love that it’s the two of us," she says. "Ellie is a great sounding board and someone to share everything with."

The pair also trade a 24-hour pager, one week on, one week off. "Kids can fall off a bike, a scooter, or the couch and break a tooth," Renee says. "You never know when you might be paged for a dental trauma."

The youngest patient Renee and Ellie have seen was just two days old, who was born with two early teeth coming in that needed monitoring, although patients normally range from one to fifteen years old.

There are several treatment options offered at the IWK depending on the specific needs of the patient, ranging from no or mild sedation to general anesthesia in the operating room. Regardless of the level of sedation implemented, Ellie and Renee both enjoy managing patient behaviour by telling stories, playing games, or singing songs while performing dental treatment. After treatment, the pair likes to reward patients with stickers and popsicles.

After they finish the GPR program, Ellie and Renee are thinking about returning to a general family practice to treat both kids and adults, at least for a while. Whether they choose a career path in the future specializing in paediatrics remains to be seen, although it’s a strong possibility. Midway through the GPR, they only had good things to say about their experience in the program. "This has been the most positive job experience I’ve ever had," says Renee.