My name is Chelsea Foster. I have been a registered dental nurse for nine years, and recently reached the end of my contract in the military after nine years’ service. I currently work at Treeline Dental Care as a practice manager in Sleaford and Lincoln.
My military career
My dad took me to the AFCO (Armed Forces Careers Office) in Lincoln, where I had a look over the army, navy or RAF. I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps, so decided to apply to the RAF. They booked my entry tests, which included a written exam and a fitness test. After completing my written exam, I was given options as to the trades I could enter with the GCSEs that I had. I went away and read over all the options. I felt that I was a caring person who was petrified of visiting the dentist, so I thought I would give dental nursing a go. It was patient-based, and I knew I wanted to work in the health sector. I then attended an interview at the AFCO, which thankfully I passed.
I was dropped off at RAF Halton on 18th March 2009 by my mum, who was in floods of tears, and my dad, who gave me the heads-up that training would be hard. I wasn’t a very confident person at the time and had never been away from home before. I was allocated to a group of women of all ages, and we were attested into the military. Within an hour of my parents signing me over, they were gone, and I was sent to my new home – a barrack block shared with at least twenty other women. We unpacked and chatted about why we were all there. The next day, we were marched in rows of three down to collect all of the kit that we would need throughout our training. My dad was right – training was hard. It included learning how to use rifles, being gassed with CS gas, and getting super-fit – but more importantly, it involved learning how to work as part of a team. The skills I learned in the military will take me through life: they included self-discipline, team work, flexibility, organisation and many more. Over twelve weeks, I watched recruits from other courses pass out on the parade square. This gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed not to quit. It was hard, but the people around me kept me going – as I did for them. After the twelve weeks had passed, I stood proudly on that parade square in front of my family as a member of the Royal Air Force.
I was now a member of the military but I needed to have a specific trade – so it was now time for trade training. I attended Aldershot, where all the medical trades complete training, and was placed in a four-person room. Once again I was with people I hadn’t met before – but they became friends I will keep for a lifetime. We completed classroom-based lessons from dental nurse tutors with breaks for physical training in between to keep our fitness levels up. We completed a dental centre placement before being sent to our first base. Training was fourteen weeks long, and I enjoyed learning all about caries, IPC and communication with patients. I spent a lot of time revising in the evenings. Those fourteen weeks felt like information overload, but I was excited to learn my new role.
My first posting
When I was posted to my first unit, RAF Marham, I continued to complete my Record of Experience and started to work as a dental nurse. I loved supporting the dentist and working with a great team. I pushed myself to learn extra information from a great mentor. After a year, I completed my dental nurse qualification and was able to be registered with the General Dental Council. During the second year I was at Marham, I looked at how I could grow as a dental nurse and knew I wanted more responsibility. I was also interested in building relationships with the patients and wanted to teach and educate. This led me to start looking into oral health education. During my time here, it was spotted that I was dyslexic, but I didn’t want that to hold me back. I got all the help I needed and continued to strive.
I was posted to RAF Brize Norton. This has the biggest dental clinic in the RAF, with six surgeries and over sixteen members of staff. My role changed; all troops fly from here to go on operations, so we had a lot of emergency patients. I worked alongside the senior dental officer, and after I showed interest in oral health education, he helped me to reach my goals. I enrolled on an oral health distance learning course and spent a lot of time talking to patients during clinic. RAF Brize Norton is also the training place for movers, so there were a lot of young adults who had just left home and had changed their diet – and were thus in need of oral health education. I worked hard over nine months to complete my oral health exam. I had excellent coursework results and passed the written exam with flying colours. However, I let nerves get the better of me when delivering my case study in a presentation, and I did not pass. When the results came through, I was upset and disheartened – but I knew I could pass, so I put on my big-girl pants and put in the hard work again. I was overjoyed when I passed the second time around.
I enjoyed working as an oral health educator and started to complete my own clinics in practice. I also went on to complete my certificate in fluoride application, as I believed this was a great qualification to have – this skill was used a lot in my oral health clinics. I then took the responsibility of becoming the oral health lead co-ordinator for our practice. I was in charge of the displays and all campaigns that we ran. I often ran campaigns for charity, which included a spin-a-thon and a bake sale. I also organised stalls for the health and wellbeing days. I loved organising ‘lunch and learns’ to help get free CPD. I often went out into the community and completed school visits to help educate children in oral health, and spent time in care homes helping elderly people and their carers with oral health information. I also travelled around with my dentist to teach and train other dental pairs in four-handed dentistry. I feel that working as part of a team in surgery is a much more efficient way of working; it saves time and also makes the patient feel at ease. It was at this point that I knew I liked the idea of teaching and mentoring, and I began to look at other ways I could progress in my career.
At this stage in my career, I was deployed to Afghanistan. I wanted to serve my country and was happy to go away and have a new experience. However, being deployed comes with sacrifices, and (as many military personnel have experienced) it meant being separated from my husband. He was also in the military and was completing a tour in the Falkland Islands at the time, which made it very difficult for us to communicate for four months. I enjoyed working in Afghanistan, as I worked in the hospital alongside American dentists – there were lots of different policies, and their rules were different to those we follow under the GDC. This was a learning curve. I had to use my communication skills to treat patients of all nationalities – sometimes language was a barrier, and they would only have one translator for all the patients who turned up to be treated. I saw a lot of dentistry that I wouldn’t have seen in the UK. Another part of my job role whilst away was to treat dogs. This was exciting, as they would come in to the hospital slightly sedated and we would complete root canal treatment and extractions using the dental chair. I met some very nice people and shared some sad times, but I am proud that I was able to serve my country. During my time in Afghanistan, my role as a dental nurse was stretched – I was a first responder to ambulances that arrived at the hospital and was a listening ear for wounded soldiers being sent home. I loved being able to make patients feel at ease during difficult treatments. Being deployed was the highlight of my career.
On returning home to the UK, I was posted to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire. During this time, I became pregnant with my son and took a year off. On my return, I took on more responsibility looking after a visited dental centre (one which has a limited number of soldiers, so the dental team from another practice visit it). This allowed me to undertake some practice management and widened my skill set. I continued to complete oral health clinics and remained the oral health co-ordinator for the practice. By this time, I was reaching the end of my contract after nine years’ service, and I started to think about courses I wished to complete on my resettlement.