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Achieving dreams and forming new ones

Wednesday 7 December 2022 6:16pm

Cullen Ryan Image

Cullen Ryan knows exactly what he wants to do with his degree in dentistry.

Cullen Ryan leaves Otago with a Bachelor of Dental Surgery and a clear idea about the community he most wants to serve.

Given the opportunity to work with special needs patients during his dentistry course the Otago graduand says he has found his calling.

His goal is to work with older people and medically complex patients, a subgroup of special needs patients with complex health conditions that often require special care.

“It just requires a different approach that you would take then a normal dental clinic because you need to be quite considerate of so many things happening,” Cullen says.

He is motivated by the thought of people like his grandparents, who have medical conditions and are on a lot of medications.

He wants to ensure those people are treated the same as everyone else and receive the best healthcare possible.

His dream will take some time, but he is ready to do the mahi.

Dentists are eligible for the programme that trains them to work with special needs patients after three years’ work experience.

His first post will be a year-long dental health surgeon role at Christchurch Hospital with Waitaha Canterbury, formerly Canterbury DHB.

The work will mostly be in pain relief and urgent care, including some on-call work in the emergency department.

He already knows he wants to work in hospital dental services within the public sector “forever”, he says, partly because that is where most special needs patients are referred.

“I don’t want to work in private, I don’t want to own a clinic. It’s kind of an internal conflict I have with how much dental services cost in New Zealand, the privatisation of it.”

Looking further in the future, Cullen hopes to learn more about the politics involved in the barriers stopping dentistry from being more publicly funded.

A ‘Pipeline’ success story

Cullen completed Va’a o Tautai – Centre for Pacific Health’s full Pipeline, a programme dedicated to recruiting, retaining and supporting Pasifika students throughout their health professional and health-related courses.

He first completed the Pacific Opportunities Programme at Otago (POPO) Foundation Programme to prepare for Health Sciences First Year (HSFY).

During that year he made “lifelong friendships” at his hall of residence, Arana, with people he says encouraged him to persevere with his subsequent studies.

In HSFY he accessed support from Va’a o Tautai in the form of tutorials, mentoring and networking opportunities as part of their POPO initiative, a programme he would later contribute to as both a tutor and mentor for students completing HSFY.

He received offers in both medicine and dentistry after HSFY and took a unique approach to choosing his path.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do but I was with a friend, and she told me to flip a coin.”

It landed on heads, which was medicine, but when his friend asked how he felt about that he responded that he was not happy, and knew then what he really wanted – to do dentistry.

During his penultimate year of study Cullen completed an internship at South Seas Healthcare in Otara as part of the Pipeline programme.

The paid internship allows Pasifika students to learn about the services primary health organisations provide and how they work.

“I think it’s good to be aware of the other services that are out there for our people so that I can direct my patients if I think that they need extra help.”

Cullen followed his older sister to Otago in 2017, where she was then completing her medical degree.

“It was nice having someone like my sister who had been through everything before me. She knew how to handle the stress and got me through it.”

His sister also introduced him to the Pacific Island Health Professional Students’ Association (PIHPSA), where he served as general representative in 2020 and treasurer in 2021.

Being at Otago has given him the opportunity to discover himself and become who he wants to be, says Cullen.

“So far, it’s probably been the best years of my life.”