Finding Positivity in a Time of COVID
If you ask Dr. Lori Simoens whether the proverbial glass is half empty or half full, she’s likely to say neither. Instead, she’ll probably tell you it depends on whether you have just poured into the glass or drunk from it, before swiftly announcing that she doesn’t care about the glass anyway. She is neither optimist nor pessimist. What she cares about is doing the best she can with what’s left of the water.
Back in March, the General Dentist from Winnipeg, Manitoba, published an article on her personal blog entitled The Rest of the Water, a heartfelt response to the onset of the COVID pandemic. Touching upon her own concerns and vulnerabilities – along with her considerable insight - the article was an honest expression of how it felt to be standing on the cliff edge that we have all come to know as COVID-19. Navigating a myriad of thoughts and emotions that surely reflected the anxieties of dentists all over Canada, Dr. Simoens ultimately arrived at the conclusion that, although fear and anxiety were perfectly understandable responses to the most significant health crisis of our time, they were not particularly useful. What was useful was the sense that we were all in this together and that we must do the best we could with the situation at hand.
When I ask what inspired her to write and share the article, she replies in a characteristically candid and generous way: “COVID came at us all of a sudden. I tried to distill the article into a cohesive piece that focused on my own experience. I think sometimes it’s helpful to know that someone else is thinking what you’re thinking and is sharing your experience. That’s what I wanted to offer my colleagues more than anything.”
“I’ve had the privilege of serving the general population for a long time now,” says Dr. Simoens. “You get a wide variety of perspectives. All I can do is be a source of strength and stability to staff and patients. Try to maintain as much resilience as I can muster. Be a listening ear or share a few laughs”.
She talks about the lockdown period. It was a hard lesson, she says, financially and otherwise. But it was an important lesson. “Dentistry as we know it shut down, and I’m glad. Taking a step away from our practices gave us the time and realization to look at things under a microscope and think twice about what we’re doing every day. It has allowed us to put great precautions in place and get everyone on the same page.”
From the beginning, she and her partner at the Waverley Dental Centre in Winnipeg, Dr. Kelly Regula, adopted a simple go-to mantra: focus on what we can do, and do it as well as we can.
What followed was a battery of phone consultations with patients, personal delivery of care packages containing high-fluoride toothpaste and other dental products, necessary office refurbishments to meet infection control measures, and regular team meetings on zoom to keep staff informed. On one occasion, Dr. Simoens even went to the pharmacy herself to pick up a prescription for a patient who was stuck in self-isolation.
She likes to think about the human impact of COVID in terms of a bell curve – a probability distribution with standard deviations and outliers. “Some people have hardly been affected at all,” she says, “whilst others are suffering intolerable anguish from the loss of a loved one.” There’s a similar effect on the economy. Job losses for some and not for others. Patients who have had their entire livelihoods wiped out with no idea when they will recover, while others have hardly been affected at all. Likewise, with the emotional toll. Some patients arrive to their appointments wracked with anxiety whilst others look forward to their dental appointments as much-needed social interactions.
Then there is the impact on the dental profession itself. Here she quickly circles back to the assurance that we are all in this together. She’s talking about community, something she is no stranger to. As a member of the Manitoba Prosthodontic Study Club, Winnipeg Progressive Dental Study Club, occasional lecturer for the Student Mentorship Program, and co-chair of the General Practice Study Club, Dr. Simoens knows a thing or two about the power of community. She knows that a sense of shared experience is a major uptick in these pandemic times, especially in her home Province of Manitoba where around 300 dentists have banded together in chat groups to connect, share information, create resources and even place bulk orders for essential PPE. “This will only make us stronger for the future,” she says.
Speaking of the future, Dr. Simoens acknowledges that the uncertainty has not gone away. But she quickly tempers this by pointing out that the pandemic will not last forever either. Again, she points to the positives: dental offices are open, dental associations are working more closely than ever with Public Health, and PPE measures are better than ever before. She also agrees that dentistry will benefit from the technological innovations that have arisen from the pandemic, though she cautions that much research and literature will be required to validate long term change.
Before we sign off, she returns to that glass of water and the question that hangs over it. Half empty or half full? “I hate that question,” she says. “I got asked it on a first date once and it kind of annoyed me.” She laughs, but there’s a point. There’s always a point. “I hate that question because it seems to be designed to put a label on someone or something. It’s so much more complex than that. And that’s what COVID is. It’s complex. The factors at play, the effects it will have. It’s really important we don’t stick to labels or take sides. I just hope that everyone looks at what’s in the glass.”
We log off and I’m left gazing at the half-drunk cup of tea sitting on my desk. Be it half empty or half full, I get the feeling that whatever Dr. Simoens chooses to do with the water in her glass it will have a positive impact on her patients and the dental profession for a long time to come.
Gabriel Fulcher is Digital Content Editor for CDA Oasis. He is an Ottawa-based writer who specializes in medical, scientific, and health-related content. He holds a BSc in Health-related Sciences and an MFA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin, Ireland.