Grad profile: Providing dental hygiene care on the wing

Autumn Penney, Dentistry

- May 24, 2024

Autumn Penney. (Bruce Bottomley photos)
Autumn Penney. (Bruce Bottomley photos)

This article is part of a series focusing on the grads of the Dalhousie Class of 2024. Spring Convocation runs from May 21 to 31 in Halifax and Truro. Read all our profiles here in one place as they are published, and for more information visit the Convocation website.

When you grow up in a small community, you tend to get to know everyone fairly quickly. That was the case for Autumn Penney (DDH’24), who grew up in Churchill Falls, Labrador, which has a population of around 700. As a child and teen, regular dental cleanings were an important part of her life. There was only one dental hygienist there — someone who would play a pivotal role when Penney was considering career options.

“Memorial University in St. John’s was just as far away from home as Dal, and Dal really interested me,” says Penney. “I knew I wanted to work in health care, so I took first-year medical sciences courses at Dal as a starting point. When I started looking more closely at Dal’s website, I stumbled across dental hygiene. It wasn’t a career I had ever thought about, and I applied on a whim.”

Back at home for the summer, Penney’s hygienist suggested that when her dad went for his cleaning, Penney should come to sit and watch her working. “After I shadowed her and thought about it, I realized the people aspect really appealed to me,” she says. “I’m a very outgoing person, and I love to hear people’s stories.”

An intense program with a supportive group

Although Penney was excited to start the program, she was also intimidated because she had only done one year of undergraduate studies. “I found the first year of the program overwhelming, and much harder than I expected,” she says. There was an upside, however. Growing up, her class sizes had been 12 students throughout her schooling. As an undergrad, she’d had hundreds of classmates in her courses.

“In dental hygiene, I had 29 classmates, and it was so much easier to get support and guidance from both our instructors and each other than in my first year at Dal,” says Penney. “Some of my dental hygiene classmates will be in my life forever.”

Penney’s favourite part of the program was the second-year clinics, in particular community outreach at Harbour View Elementary School in Dartmouth. “I started babysitting when I was 12, so I had fun teaching the kids,” she says. “I also enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the clinics, which made me feel prepared to start my career in dental hygiene.”

Less fun was injecting a local anaesthetic for the first time. “I’d never had any dental work or a needle in my mouth, so my first experience was from a classmate,” says Penney. “I was nervous at first, but I didn’t faint!” She also found microbiology challenging, because she didn’t have much experience in advanced science, but with hard work, determination and focus, she got through it.

A return to Labrador – with a twist

When Penney applied to the program, her plan was always to move home to work. “I want to give back to Labrador, where there is such a lack of resources for basic health care,” she says. “I also love the lifestyle and being outdoors. Everyone is connected to nature there.” Penney enjoys fishing, kayaking, hiking and snowmobiling at her family’s camp.

In June, Penney starts a six-month contract with the Nunatsiavut Government, where she’ll be assisting Dr. Erin Power (DDS’11) of Rigolet Dental Clinic, providing oral care to isolated Inuit communities in coastal Labrador. “My first trip will be as a dental assistant, until I’m registered in July,” she says. “This role really intrigued me, because I’m from Labrador but I’ve never been to the coast — I just know it’s cold in the winter and the flies are unbearable in the summer!” 

Power and Penney will fly into the communities, where they’ll stay in an apartment for a few weeks while they’re working. On her weeks off, Penney will live at home with her parents and younger brother. “It’s the perfect opportunity, and the right time for me to do something like this that involves travel, while I’m still so young and I don’t have a family of my own,” she says.

When Penney applied to the dental hygiene program, she had no idea she would kickstart her career in the profession in such a non-traditional way. What would she advise those thinking about applying and the opportunities that await them? “Just go for it! It can be overwhelming, and sometimes I wanted to quit, but I knew that this was what I wanted to do. This profession is so rewarding. I love it, and I’m passionate about it now.”


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