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Fixing smiles for nothing brought me closer to God

Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues is a journalist for The Catholic Weekly. She also writes at marilynrodrigues.com. Email her at [email protected]
Dr Robert Aslan at his St Anthony Dental practice in Five Dock. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dr Robert Aslan at his St Anthony Dental practice in Five Dock. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Sydneysiders with a sweet tooth flock to Five Dock’s patisseries and cremerias, but now people with no cash to spare are going to a surgery on Ramsay St where smiles are fixed for free.

Dr Robert Aslan, 61, has done more than $250,000 worth of volunteer dental work for some of Sydney’s most disadvantaged people since launching his St Anthony Dental practice on the saint’s feast day in June last year.

Each week refugees, domestic violence survivors, and people in rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addictions come through the Ramsay St doors to be welcomed by Dr Aslan and his caring team.

After close to four decades in the profession and feeling “extremely blessed” in life, the father of three says St Anthony, the medieval Franciscan friar and patron saint of lost things, pestered him to follow a life-long calling to help the poor.

“I was making quite good money, and when I discussed it with my wife she said, ‘You know you’ll have to forgo that now, but if you feel driven to do this, then that’s what you must do,’” Dr Aslan explained.

“It was a calling. I kept seeing St Anthony repeatedly, I would see him when I prayed and I felt he was saying stop and go out on your own. I never gave him much thought before this.

“About two weeks after I stopped work, my wife was diagnosed with a serious illness and I managed to have a year just to support her.

“She’s cured now, and I believe it’s through St Anthony that I was able to be there for my wife at the time of her trials.”

Dr Robert says 40-50 per cent of his work is now dedicated to helping people who have acute and chronic oral disease, injury, pain or discomfort and can’t afford dental treatment.

He’d like to do more but needs donations and paying patients in order to make more volunteer work possible.

“I’m already losing money to run the surgery for my charity work but I don’t mind that, I’m happy just to earn my daily bread and I won’t ever stop,” he said.

Dr Robert Aslan with his “patient” Fr Richard Ddumba, who will celebrate the first anniversary Mass for the surgery on 13 June. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Dr Robert Aslan with his “patient” Fr Richard Ddumba, who will celebrate the first anniversary Mass for the surgery on 13 June. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“I really believe that money is the root of all evil and I don’t want to store up all my treasure on Earth.

“Jesus warns against in Matthew’s Gospel in the story about the rich farmer who decided to tear down his barns to build bigger ones for all his surplus food and things.

“It gives me great satisfaction and it’s such a blessing to help people who really need it without mentioning money to them, especially when I hear their stories I think, ‘My goodness, I can’t imagine what I would be like going through that.’

“I used to go to Mass occasionally, sometimes confession. I’d be happy to go to Mass every day now because it’s brought me closer to God and my faith has increased a million times since I started doing this.”

Dr Aslan takes referrals from the Australian Dental Health Foundation, the Rebuilding Smiles program for domestic violence survivors, the St Vincent de Paul Foundation and the Australian Dental Association’s Filling the Gap program.

Kristy Greenhalgh, 43, was referred to Dr Robert through Rebuilding Smiles and will receive major treatment and a full top denture made for her for free.

She is so self-conscious about her many missing or damaged teeth that she hasn’t smiled for a photo for years, including at her daughter’s engagement party.

“It’s been like this for 20 years and it’s just getting worse,” Ms Greenhalgh said.

“Half of my teeth were knocked out of my face, and then because I’m a smoker I’m getting gum disease and more problems with them as I get older.

“My daughter asked me why I never smile, why I’m not the bubbly happy person in photos that I normally am.

“I just feel very awkward about it. Having this now sorted out will build up my self-esteem so much.

“Dr Robert is awesome, he really is, with a great sense of humour. He makes me feel so comfortable and reassured that everything’s going to be ok.”

Dr Aslan and his team plan to celebrate the first anniversary of their surgery with a feast day Mass and lunch at All Hallows’ church on 13 June.

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