I cannot say that I always knew that I was going to be a dentist, but I can say that once I began my journey, I knew there would be nothing else that I would ever want to do.
I was born in Riyadh, the third of six siblings. My father, a businessman, and my mother, a homemaker, always encouraged us to be the best versions of ourselves. My siblings and I grew up in a home full of love and encouragement, and parents that supported us in all our academic endeavors.
My father was so proud when I entered dental school, and he still brags to people about his daughter, which touches my heart and brings me pride.
As an undergraduate dental student at King Saud University in the 1990s, I found more than just my calling in life, I also found my partner: My husband, Dr. Esam Tashkandi. We were in the same year of dental school and were very drawn to each other. Today, we have five beautiful children, who are my best friends and the light of my life.
After we both received our undergraduate degrees in dentistry, my husband and I decided to continue our education and specializations spending almost 10 years in the US, where we graduated with multiple postgraduate degrees from the University of Michigan. I obtained four degrees during my time there: A doctorate of public health, a master’s of public health, a master’s of science in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics and a certificate of clinical specialty in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics.
Currently, I see patients at my private practice in a clinic here in Riyadh, but as a professor, I also teach at my own alma mater, King Saud University. I still treat patients, but more importantly I pass on what I know as often as I can so a new generation of dentists can emerge.
Becoming a pediatric dentist was the only logical next step in the course of my career. I have always loved children, and children have always loved me. My natural knack for handling them, for soothing tempers and making them smile, has been invaluable throughout my career. I think it has to do with my name: “Ebtissam,” which is Arabic for “smile,” and I have many decorations and toys all over my clinic marked with smiling faces for that reason. It’s like my mark.
My interest lies mostly in treating children with special needs as many other dentists avoid seeing them for various reasons.
It could be due to their lack of knowledge or the patience to deal with them. Treating children with autism, for example, is difficult as communication is key to gain their trust. They don’t express themselves the way other children do, and their behavior is different as well.
One day, I had a patient come into my office whose mother seemed almost defeated. She told me that she had been to almost a dozen doctors, none who seemed able to help her son who was autistic. The child had a tooth that was causing him so much pain she would often find him lying on the floor, cheek pressed to the cold ground, trying to alleviate it. But none of the doctors she visited could control him.
After spending enough time and effort, I was able to coax him into having the tooth removed. I never forgot his mother’s gratitude. It was then that I knew that I would continue to do this even if no one else would.
I was one of the few dentists who saw special needs patients on a regular basis, and eventually gained a reputation as being highly capable with special needs children. As the number of special needs children I saw increased, I started to focus on them more.
Today, I have given several lectures internationally about the treatment of special needs children in regards to their oral health, and am a proud member of multiple special needs societies, including the prestigious Saudi Autism Society.
To me, there was still more that I could do. I could treat these patients myself, but I often ask myself about what would happen when I decide to retire. To that end, I wrote a proposal to the dean of the college of dentistry requesting permission to establish the first dental clinic specifically for special needs children at the college and received welcoming approvals.
The clinic is also a teaching facility for the students themselves, providing free treatment for the children and the students gain valuable experience. The invaluable support of the administration is what made this possible, and I’m so grateful to my university for helping me with this endeavor.
The children I treat are my inspiration. There is nothing that feels better than knowing that I can help to bring them comfort when no one else will. But in the future, I hope we can inspire more dentists to work with special needs patients. Even if it’s a little more stressful, and a little more difficult, the end results are always worth it.
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