The New Year marked the start of a new decade this year, and like everyone else I had plenty of expectations for the year ahead. There was so much to look forward to. I had more clinical time scheduled in the spring term, and I was finally receiving patients as a BDS3 student. I was back on the Kabaddi pitch having added a concussion to my list of injuries the previous season. I was elected the Chair of the Dental Student Council for 2020/21 and was planning for the next academic year whilst at the same time writing applications to further my own education in a KURF project. And as part of the Open Up research project, my partner and I organised our workshop to take place after months of planning and preparation. However, as I’m sure we can all attest to, many of the plans made this year had a habit of derailing before they’d even begun.
The first two and a half months went by rapidly. Between Kabaddi training, BDS3 formatives, clinics and tutorials, the fabulous DentSoc half-way ball, Dental Student Council responsibilities, and spending time with my friends and sister, my life was exceptionally full. I always had so much to occupy my time with and was permanently surrounded by people - exactly how I liked it. Soon I would be doing my first TMA having found an appropriate patient, my Kabaddi team would be celebrating our victories at Nationals and my partner and I would have finally completed the workshop and collected data for our Open Up project.
Around February, with Covid-19 cases in Singapore increasing, I began worrying that I wouldn’t be able to go back home over Easter break. But it wasn’t long before the same happened in the UK. On the 12th of March, my parents insisted I returned home several weeks before the end of term. I spent the next two days stressing over this decision; I deliberated the risk of staying in the UK versus taking a 16hr flight to Singapore, I wondered whether the UK would go into lockdown, I attempted to assess the impact it could have on my education and wondered what would happen if I missed clinics and the Prosthodontic essay exam... and had about a hundred other ‘what ifs?’. That weekend, whilst celebrating a birthday with friends, I sadly decided to fly back to Singapore early. I realised it could be months before I saw them again. However, I didn’t realise that that would be the last time all eight of us would be together all year.
The following week was exceptionally stressful. University announced its closure, there were articles about possible tube closures and a national lockdown seemed imminent. Last-minute flights back home were becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to find - I had never before felt so much urgency and uncertainty. That week I took part in the very first of many weekly meetings to help improve student-faculty communication during this time of change. As the DentSoc International rep at the time, I was also raising unique concerns experienced by students, such as myself, who had to return home.
Fortunately, I was able to book a flight for the end of that week. I packed a small carry-on suitcase with just my textbooks and a small number of clothes (significantly less than my usual, unnecessary 30kg check-in). The days leading up to my flight I was abnormally anxious - I prayed my flight wouldn’t get cancelled, that tubes remained open and that London didn’t enter a national lockdown before I was able to return home. I was also worried about going home to my parents, so I took whatever precautions I could to make my way home safely; ensuring I PPE-ed up with face masks and was well-equipped with hand sanitizer. After a long and tiring flight, I finally reached Changi Airport, only to stand in line for almost 3 hours to get swabbed - something I genuinely hope to never do again.
I spent my first two weeks in Singapore completely isolated to my bedroom, even washing dishes in my bathroom (not at all pleasant). During the first few days I was down with strep throat. Despite feeling unwell, I self-medicated with turmeric milk, salt-water and a strange, bitter concoction my mother prepared for me to avoid going to the doctors. Those two weeks were a unique experience, and the longest I have ever gone without any real, face-to-face human interaction. Suddenly I had all this time with no tasks to preoccupy myself with or people to be surrounded by - life had totally slowed down. I enjoyed being able to read, do yoga, watch Blue Planet II (so overdue), and admire some stunning sunsets from my balcony.
The weekly meetings continued - every week I’d send a message out to the BDS1-3 WhatsApp groups to receive questions for Katya, Dr Lewis-Greene and Prof Piper. They would patiently answer our never-ending list of queries, and I would share responses back through WhatsApp. These meetings slowly evolved and developed over the past eight months and have played, what I believe is, a pivotal role in improving communication between the faculty and student body. For me, attending these regular meetings has given me insight into the workings of the dental faculty, facilitated a smooth transition to becoming Chair and, most importantly, allowed me to connect with the student body.
Over time I adapted to the time difference; catching up on lectures in the mornings whilst London slept, and in the evenings, I looked forward to online classes, meetings and calls with friends. I missed being on-campus, but I realised this was a desperately needed break from normal, hectic life. Exams were just around the corner and since I was home and had my parents’ support, I was better able to focus on revision and experienced far less exam stress than normal.
Like everyone, I picked up a lockdown hobby. No, it wasn’t baking banana bread or making dalgona coffee - I started carving teeth out of soap. With exams out of the way, I was missing the practical side of dentistry. Carving is truly a therapeutic activity and recommend trying it out if you haven’t already (it doesn’t have to be teeth, I realise not everyone is quite as obsessed as me). While I hoped this would also help me retain some manual dexterity, my first day back on simulation proved otherwise. Thankfully, after several weeks of crown prepping, holding a drill no longer feels foreign to me.
The new academic year, like the rest of 2020, has not been what I initially expected. I hoped to get stuck in with clinics during BDS4, so unsurprisingly I occasionally worry about the limited experience I have with patients. But we are all in the same boat and in the meantime I am trying to make the most of simulation sessions, multi-disciplinary cases and tutorials. As a result of the pandemic, I have also been able to dedicate significantly more effort and energy to the student council, my research projects and other activities, which are learning opportunities in their own rights.
I frequently wonder what I would be up to if Covid-19 had never happened. I’d have been taking out my stress on the Kabaddi pitch and socialising with my friends, celebrating our birthdays together and attending the DentSoc boat party instead of what was a seemingly endless stream of Zoom calls. The Open Up project would have taken place in March rather than October, I would have actually met everyone on the Dental Council team in-person, and I might have enjoyed summer in London whilst completing my KURF in the Tower. We also would have concluded the BDS3 clinical skills course with a viva, done the OSCEs and a terrifying 9-question written paper. But truthfully, I may not have done as well in our BDS3 exams and would have worn myself thin attempting to manage it all. Ultimately, both research projects are well under-way, the Dental Council team are working hard to represent the student body, and I had the unique opportunity to spend five months back home with my parents.
My life looks very different now compared to the beginning of 2020. I have grown accustomed to being my own company, but I do miss tackling players on the Kabaddi pitch, attending DentSoc socials and hugging my friends after a long day on clinics. Things have been in constant flux since mid-March, and there is an element of uncertainty. But not knowing seems to have become the norm, and that’s okay - we have been able to adapt amazingly, and I know we will continue to do so.