Dr. Farida Saher loves people. She loves their diversity and learning their stories and perspectives, so it is no surprise that she became a pediatric dentist, a specialty that places a priority on interpersonal skills like communication and understanding. “The unique thing about pediatric dentistry is that it is a specialty of the patient,” says Saher. “It is no different from adult dentistry in terms of the procedures, but with pediatric dentistry, it is more of a human skill.”
Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Saher, age 38, is an associate professor with the University of Calgary and a community pediatric dentist. She completed dental school and a dental residency at the University of Alberta before attending Boston University to complete a pediatric dentistry specialty training program. The program provides dentists with additional training to understand and apply skills and psychological principles to ensure children have positive dental experiences. Upon completion of the program, Saher accepted a job in Calgary, and within two years, she purchased the Dental Care for Children practice from her mentor, Dr. Lenny Smith. She now operates offices in the Sunridge and Southport areas of Calgary.
Saher specializes in children with behavioural challenges and higher medical needs, as well as special needs adults, with many of her patients having widespread dental disease and severe dental anxiety. One side of her practice operates like any dental office. She sees new patients and does regular dental treatment, with most treatment provided using Behaviour management techniques. The other side of her practice provides oral rehabilitation under general anesthesia.
“A lot of pediatric dentistry is done in the operating room,” says Saher. “The patients are so young, and if a large volume of dental work is needed, it is a better and safer experience for the child when it is done under general anesthesia.” When Saher meets a new patient, she has a long conversation with the family. She wants to learn about things that do not traditionally factor into a dental interaction. “A patient is not just the person sitting in your office,” says Saher. “There is so much more to their story. If you take the time to learn about them, you will be far more successful in the treatment you achieve and their ability to follow up.” In addition to medical history and dental habits, Saher asks the family about their day-today life and background. She inquires about the child’s school experience, other children in the home, and if the parents have help from other family members. If they are newcomers, she also wants to know when the family came to Canada. “I am genuinely interested,” says Saher, “but all this information also factors into the treatment plan and follow-up expectations.”
Saher’s Sunridge practice has a large immigrant and refugee population, and she is keenly aware of the challenges and barriers to care these patients can face. “My staff have really become advocates for our patients,” says Saher. “It is a team effort, and I truly stand on the shoulders of my staff.” Her staff speak various languages and often help connect patients with the different supports available to them, such as Alberta Works, which helps low-income Albertans cover the cost of dental care. She also treats a number of patients with autism and downs syndrome. With her staff’s knowledge of the programs and supports available, they often assist these families in applying for educational assistants and personal care aides. “Our practice has become a bit of a community hub,” says Saher. “We even have patients who met at our office and now help each other with translation outside of our practice. It is quite heartwarming.”
Saher spends time away from her practice volunteering with Kindness in Action, an Alberta-based not-forprofit organizing dental missions to remote locations worldwide. Their mandate is to provide dental care to populations who would otherwise not have access. Saher has participated in ten missions to seven countries. “A person’s health is compromised when there is a lack of dental care,” says Saher. “Living in chronic, consistent pain, especially when it is a child, affects brain development and can have major impacts for the rest of their life. I feel compelled to do something. If I can take one person out of pain, it was a worthwhile trip.”
In 2017, Saher was asked to lead a mission to Cambodia. “That trip was incredibly fulfilling,” says Saher. “I never truly appreciated the effort that goes into organizing a mission until I was the person responsible for the operations and logistics.” The Cambodia trip included a team of 17 dentists, hygienists, and helpers who saw approximately 1,000 patients over two weeks. Everyone participating pays their travel expenses and donates to the organization to cover the cost of supplies. “We bring generators, dental units, supplies, consumables, and extraction equipment. We have approximately 25 pieces of luggage dedicated solely to our work.” They travel to several locations during each trip, with local grassroots organizations managing local logistics and providing translators.
The villages they travel to are very remote. “There can be a lot of barriers to care when you live in a remote location,” says Saher. “To visit the nearest dentist often requires extensive travel, which can mean a few days’ lost wages.” Her most memorable trip was to Peru, which saw the team travelling by canoe each day to reach different locations along the Amazon River. “All of our trips go to remote locations, but Peru was extremely remote. Working in the jungle also meant dealing with a lot of mosquitos, not to mention the spiders and snakes.”
When Dr. Saher is not working in her practice or participating in dental missions, she loves travelling for pleasure, experiencing new cultures, and trying new food. In 2019, she was one of Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40, and she has appeared on the Global TV Morning Show multiple times to educate families about children’s dental health. “My work is incredibly fulfilling,” says Saher. “To know I have helped a child have a good dental experience and to see that child leave my office pain-free makes me feel that I have made a difference.”
By Tammie Roy