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People, Our Work, Immigration

Dentist Finds Her Calling In Remote Northern Canada

Curated by Shipra Chaudhury

Storyteller: Swathi Umesh

January 24, 2022

"This article first appeared in Desi News magazine"

Born in India and raised in Dubai, Swathi Umesh had varied interests and grew up unsure about what she really wanted to pursue.

At one point in time she wanted to be a teacher; next, a vet. Then she wanted to do genetic engineering. Winning an art competition in the United Arab Emirates convinced her that she could become an artist. “Since I was all over the place, my folks suggested dentistry!” recalls Umesh with a laugh.

She completed her dental degree from Mangalore, India. After marriage, she wanted to move to the US with her husband Ranjan Rao, an IT professional, but life had other plans and they landed in Toronto in September 2004 with their daughter Antara. Soon Umesh was teaching English to adults while working with another dentist to gain Canadian experience. After the birth of her second daughter, Anika, she joined a 10-week community program which, though not so helpful, was a lot of fun.

“We moved to Milton from Mississauga and I joined a bakery, working a part-time night shift to take care of my kids during the day.” She also worked at the Kumon teaching centre for the next five years while preparing for the entrance exam to join a dental hygiene school. And while doing all this, she started a small business – Talkwithpaint – making home decor and art pieces.

Commercial flights take healthcare providers from Toronto to Thunder Bay and then small planes fly them to Sioux Lookout.
Commercial flights take healthcare providers from Toronto to Thunder Bay and then small planes fly them to Sioux Lookout.

One of Umesh’s friends had said she could have a career or a family, not both. The statement bothered her and it acted as a catalyst. She joined a dental hygiene school when Anika turned three, got herself a profession, started working, and managed both work and home successfully. Of course, this couldn’t have been possible without her husband’s support, she says. Life was good, but six years later, Umesh was looking to achieve more.

“Life was comfortable, we went for our so-called vacations and all that jazz, but there was still a void within me. I was so restless until I met a dentist who changed my life and gave me a purpose.”

And so began a new chapter in her life. Umesh started working for Indigenous Services Canada under the Rural Areas Program (RAP). The program delivers care to about 30 communities spread across northwestern Ontario, from the Kenora area all the way up to the Hudson Bay coast. It’s a landmass equal to the size of France! The oral health needs of Indigenous people are costly. The program provides an opportunity to help improve their oral health.

“RAP pays a competitive per diem and covers travel, accommodation costs, and more,” says Umesh. “This is a rewarding program that you don’t want to miss out on. It’s a great opportunity to travel and get paid for contributing to a good cause. When I went to my first reserve, I did not know what to expect. I must admit I was very nervous and excited all at the same time. You see documentaries, pictures on Google, but it’s not the same. After I got over the first experience, I wanted more. I have been to a total of nine places in northern Ontario.”

Commercial flights take healthcare providers from Toronto to Thunder Bay and then small planes fly them to Sioux Lookout. Located approximately 350 km northwest of Thunder Bay, it has a population of around 5,300 people. Once you reach here, they put you up in a hotel for the night, and then the next morning, you leave in a tiny floatplane for your community.

“Accommodations in these communities are always a mystery,” shares Umesh. “I say this because nothing is ready! You are put up in the room they have available with a couple of roommates. I’ve shared a common kitchen and washroom with amazing roomies ranging from councillors, therapists, environmental health department workers and nurses and caregivers.

Swathi Umesh.
Swathi Umesh.

“I wish I could say that these rooms were fancy, but unfortunately, not. I have had to wash the bathroom, sweep and mop the place. I carry my own sheets due to some bad experiences for you are not sure if anything is washed. And above all, it’s not necessary that your roommate has to be a lady, I have had male roommates, too. My latest one was chopping and slicing fish in the common kitchen with blood splattering everywhere – and I am a vegetarian, you know,” she chuckled.

The small local stores had limited supplies catering more towards non-vegetarians and mainly junk food, the size of the store varies, based on the community’s population.

The workplace can be pretty challenging, too, with minimum staff and tools, says Umesh and she had to keep one area off-limits for sterilization purposes. She was given a community assistant who knows the people. And some of the communities she has recently been to have started construction of brand new modern dental facilities.

Umesh feels the people are the best part of this program: Small, tightknit communities that take care of one another and are very warm and welcoming.

“I always make sure that I visit a school – that is the highlight of my trip. I have had some fun times with the children! I have tried my hands at beading, fishing, sat around with them at giant campfires sipping tea, attended their cooking sessions, potlucks that they host in the community; I had the opportunity to participate in a secret Santa dinner party once, where I made Haldiram Bhelpuri and guess what? They loved it!” she says, her eyes sparkling.

Nature’s beauty and wildlife have always fascinated her. “Every single community is surrounded by aquamarine lakes and rolling mountains, twisting trails, and evergreen forests. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the breathtaking Northern Lights, oblivious to the freezing temperatures! And with every trip, I come back feeling not only satisfied and self-contented but also energized and enthused that I have achieved something, even though it is very little.”

She loves to choreograph, dance and act, play badminton with her husband, paint, do yoga and Zumba. Her hands are full. You might also see her in a short regional film soon!

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