Dr. Yasmin Mawji setting up her gear.
Women who fall victim to domestic abuse are often left with facial disfigurements that can be helped by dental surgery. Unfortunately for many of these women who find themselves in such tragic situations, they’re unable to pay for the dental work they need. It’s a critical issue, and luckily, there’s a clinic in Toronto looking to patch it up as much as they possibly can.
The Dr. Borna Meisami Commemorative Foundation is a Canadian dental service that offers free dental care and facial reconstruction to women affected by physical abuse.
Starting in 2010, Dr. Tina Meisami, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, spearheaded the project in honour of her late brother. The foundation operates by using the facilities of several dental practices spread across the Greater Toronto Area. Comprised solely of female dental practitioners, these charitable specialists identify women in need who are being put up in local shelters and provide them with gum fillings, dental implants, root canals, cleanings, gum surgery, replacement of missing teeth, and surgical reconstruction of soft and hard tissue.
In between patients, I spoke with Dr. Yasmin Mawji, a close friend of Dr. Meisami and one of the founding members of the clinic, about operating on victims of domestic violence, and the growing pains their relatively new service is experiencing
VICE: What type of dental services does the clinic offer?
Yasmin Mawji: Basically everything. We do all of the work for women in the shelters that we can. You have to understand that we are running our own practices too… We’re really not about cosmetic dentistry; we’re about what is needed. But if we are treating a young girl and it’s affecting her then we’ll provide cosmetic services as well.
Why did you decide to get involved in this project?
My parents are Muslim so I was taught to help the needy. I worked in Jerusalem as a volunteer dentist to help children, and I used to help the Shout Clinic for street youth in Toronto. This is just the natural progression of doing something to give back to the community.
What was it like first operating on a person who you knew to be a victim of domestic violence?
One of the things I’ve been told many times is not to get involved emotionally, and that’s very tough as a woman. It’s hard because you have to do the work and you can’t cross that line. A woman just came in here, her tooth was broken and she came in with her mother and she sat in the chair and then burst out crying. So, we had to talk to her and make her feel better. And of course once I fixed the tooth, she was smiling.
Another time I went to an Etobicoke shelter to see two young women, I think they were from Pakistan, just 21 and 24—they were two sisters married to two brothers. One had a child and the other one was about to deliver. They had infected teeth, and the next time I went back to the shelter they were not there. I think they went back to their situation, because culturally they don’t have the ability to leave. That’s how it is… but emotionally you really have to try to keep it from bothering you.
How do you mentally separate yourself from it?
Well, work has to be done, right? To be effective you have turn it off. Once they are done then they go away, and it’s very difficult to follow the trail. If you keep following one or two people you can’t get work done.
Worn out blades from dental drills.
What’s the worst case you’ve come across?
One woman was referred to me, she was from Ukraine, and her whole mouth was destroyed. It was both neglect and assault and she was living on very little money. After leaving home and going to a shelter and getting rehabilitated, she didn’t have money for her teeth. Eventually I had to refer her to Dr. Meisami because I thought she needed to be asleep to get everything removed.
Was there ever a time when you tried to re-establish a connection with a contact after you were done?
No, you’re not allowed to do that. And when I used to work at the Shout Clinic in the beginning I was quite naïve. I would take these kids after we were done to go get their welfare cheques and the shelter came down on me and said that’s not your job—which is true, because really, you need that impartiality.
How long are these women living with these injuries?
There are some women who have been living with them for months, some longer. I’ve seen a few with broken teeth... So it’s about cleaning their gums or getting their teeth removed for the younger women. We have amazing people who are donating funds… We have a women’s lab that does the work for free and I put in implants.
How can they continue living with injuries that severe?
There are a lot of sore spots and it affects their nutrition and well being, but they’re working with the pain all the time. As it is they are already in a tough situation so they just deal with it.
Have all patients been receptive to the treatment?
Well, they have all been very receptive because, here’s someone who’s going to treat you; I’m not asking you for anything I’m just going to do it. We do the treatment and then they move on.
In terms of funding, how does it work exactly and how do you keep yourselves afloat?
It does get expensive and that’s why there’s a core group of us. We’re still doing it free and I just pay for the materials myself. If it’s for implants we get them from dental companies like Citagenix Canada or Nobel Biocare—they give us implants and materials like resins that we use for fillings and stuff like that, but it’s not continuous. I can’t say, “I need this. Send me this.”
Some of the dentists who have joined are associates who don’t have their own practice, so people like me and others use our own and pay for it. We are still young so we are trying to establish all of this so we can develop an efficient way of getting things done.
Do you know if there any other clinics that offer what you guys do across Canada?
No. Not that I know of.
Why do you think that is?
A lot of time and money goes into this. You have to thank Dr. Meisami, the staff, and the administration. Due to cutbacks and lack of funds, many of the dental departments in hospitals have been downsized or eliminated.
What is it that you and the rest of the clinic’s doctors would want from this organization going forward?
If we can set up a permanent clinic, maybe somewhere at the University of Toronto, where we can set up a couple of dental chairs, have directors, get a couple of assistants, and have a proper rotation of people doing the work, then it would be more streamlined.
You’re doing important work. Thank you.
If you'd like to get in touch with the Dr. Borna Meisami Commemorative Foundation you can do so here.
Follow Jabbari on Twitter: @DaysandWeekes
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