Dental resident draws on military background to treat complex cases

Sgt. Angela Brownell and Jesse Barker working in the Canadian Mobile Dental Clinic in Iraq (Photo courtesy of Jesse Barker)

As a dentist in the Canadian Armed Forces, Jesse Barker had to think on his feet – a skill that’s coming in handy during graduate dental training in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry.

“The skills you learn in military basic training help you so much as a student,” says Barker, a first-year student in the faculty’s prosthodontics graduate specialty program. “As a dental student and member of the military, you have to take care of yourself, be diligent, focused and organized, and have good habits and values.”

Barker joined the military in his second year of a doctor of dental medicine (DMD) degree at the University of Saskatchewan after a military recruiter visited his class.

“It was a borderline impulsive decision, but I’m really glad I made it,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to see more of Canada, and joining the military allowed me to do that while continuing my education.”

He enrolled in the military in 2011 and did his basic training over the summers to allow him to continue his DMD program. After graduation, he was posted to Quebec City where he started working as a military dentist. He then spent two years in Nova Scotia and later Winnipeg, where he was the clinic’s lead dentist.

Jesse Barker in the Canadian Mobile Dental Clinic in Iraq (Photo by Sgt. Angela Brownell)

Although Barker’s dad was a dentist, he didn’t consider a career in the field himself until he was finishing his degree in microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan. He says he liked the science focus in dentistry, especially prosthodontics, a branch of dentistry that deals with the design, fitting and manufacture of artificial replacements for teeth and other parts of the mouth.

“I chose dentistry, specifically prosthodontics, because I wanted to work with people with complex cases,” says Barker. “I like collaborating with other specialists and helping patients with extensive problems. When they come to you, it’s not just with their dental problems – you have the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and manage their case in an elegant, comprehensive way. That’s what excites me.”

That’s part of what drew Barker to study at U of T. Not only is the Faculty of Dentistry known for its rich history of training well respected prosthodontists and other specialists, it also allows students to collaborate in a very meaningful way, he says.

“One main strength of our MSc prosthodontics program is that, in addition to learning how to provide all types of implant-supported dental restorations, we also receive extensive surgical training for placement of dental implants,” he says. “This surgical part of the implant treatment is typically taught in periodontics and oral surgery programs, but not always in prosthodontics programs. Learning this helps us develop a deeper understanding of the entire dental implant process.”

In his first few weeks at the faculty, Barker has already started working with patients and planning their treatment. He notes it’s quite different from his past patient experience, especially those he treated after he was deployed to Iraq this past January to July to provide dental care to the troops.

“In Iraq, people would come to us with dental emergencies, often flown in by a helicopter, and we’d have to find a solution right then and there because they had to get back to their mission,” says Barker. “I’m used to seeing people with challenging needs in difficult circumstances. I think this has prepared me for my time treating patients here, and I’m really excited about it.”

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