Healthy Living in the North

Oral health is not an out of body experience

Spirit the Cariboo at a fluoride varnish clinic with an NH staff member.One of the things that always strikes me as odd is that the mouth is often considered a separate body part when we’re discussing health issues. Did you know an unhealthy mouth can affect your appearance, social acceptance, and ability to eat and sleep? An infection in the mouth comes from a bacterial infection; these bacteria have the potential to travel through the bloodstream and affect other organs. Many people don’t realize that oral infections can impact chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and even birth rates.

Your mouth is an important part of your body! And we all need to treat it as such in order to be and stay as healthy as possible.

Empowering healthy dental behaviours

I’m a dental regional program lead – I teach and provide resources and tools to empower public health staff to support our northern population around adopting healthy dental behaviours. Dental public health staff work towards helping people achieve the skills they need to start making small changes – commonly called brief action planning. We want them to start today to make a small change.

How small changes can make a big difference

If someone decides today to use fluoride toothpaste daily (or better yet, twice daily), when previously they did not, the science tells us that their long range dental decay rate will reduce.

If today, a teenager starts chewing a sugar-free piece of gum after a snack, the length of time of the acidic attack on their teeth will diminish, and they will have less decay over their lifetime.

If someone makes a small change every day, the dental preventive effect is maximized and continues to increase.

I dream of a day when all dental treatment needs are covered by a universal dental plan; however, at this time, I am happy to focus my attention on what I can practically influence.

The cost of prevention: a positive return on investment

My perspective is that the cost of prevention is cheaper than the cost of chronic disease treatment in hospital. I once had a client who had diabetes and a mouth full of decayed teeth, coupled with no funding to fully treat the oral health issue. Not being able to eat impacted this person’s diabetes, and uncontrolled diabetes affected their emotional stability, resulting in a long hospital stay. Chronic and untreated oral infections take a toll on the body and in this case, the finances of the health care system.

Advocating for change

I continue to advocate for the best avenues to help clients access dental care, but every day I encourage my staff to implement the practical applications of dental prevention. Some of these include:

  • Using fluoride toothpaste twice a day.
  • Reducing frequent sipping on sweetened beverages.
  • Practicing empathy and respect so patients feel comfortable.

It takes many caring individuals across a broad spectrum of disciplines to implement change. I continue to believe change for the better is always possible… even if it’s only one tooth brushing session at a time.

Shirley Gray-Kealey

About Shirley Gray-Kealey

Shirley is the Team Lead for Dental Programs at Northern Health. She moved to Terrace for a two year position as a Dental Hygienist and has stayed for 27 years! She feels it's a privilege to live and work in the North. She loved teaching children and has been mistaken for the tooth fairy! She is not magic like the tooth fairy, but she is proud to lead a real team of preventive dental specialists in the North who work hard to ensure children keep their teeth healthy for a lifetime.


Certified Dental Assistants: A passion for healthy smiles!

Two toothbrushes

Northern Health has a dedicated team of public dental health professionals who are busy promoting healthy dental behaviours!

April is Oral Health Month!

You may not know that Northern Health has a dedicated team of public dental health professionals who are busy promoting healthy dental behaviours! This Oral Health Month, I’d like to celebrate and acknowledge the work that our Certified Dental Assistants (CDAs) provide. CDAs are educated, trained dental professionals who make important assessments about patient care every day. The five ladies who make up this team are often the first person that clients meet in their community – whether it’s at family health events, Strong Start, or our fluoride varnish clinics.

I had the privilege of interviewing each of the CDAs last month and discovered the deep passion each has for working with children and families. I asked that they share a few stories and reflections here with you.

Thank you for taking time to read and consider the support these ladies provide in our communities!


I am a Certified Dental Assistant working as a Community Dental Assistant for Northern Health. I’ve been working for six years and during that time, I have been in contact with multiple families. The families that made the biggest impression on me were the ones who had children with early childhood caries. Sometimes these children are in pain and you can really tell that their self-esteem is low. They also struggle to eat well.

After these children are treated and their pain is alleviated, the difference can make you cry! I like to compare it to a flower that is blooming – so beautiful and happy! There is nothing better than watching a child start to thrive again, eat, and be healthy and happy! This is what makes me love my job and makes me passionate about healthy children.


I appreciate the variety that my job as a dental assistant in public & population health offers. I love working with young children and their parents and especially enjoy working with immigrant families. Recently, our dental program was invited to the multicultural society in Prince George to meet with several new refugee families from Syria. A co-worker and I did basic teaching around oral health, screening and referral for obvious dental needs, and did fluoride applications for children under 6 years. The children and I got a great laugh as I attempted to pronounce their names. They had no problem with my name! All in all, it was a great privilege to meet these families and to be a small part of not only helping them on the road to achieve better dental health, but also to show compassion and friendship as they face many new challenges in adjusting to their new life in Canada.


When I think of a success story in my time as a Certified Dental Assistant, I remember the first time I went out to see families in a remote community. I was screening children and doing fluoride varnish with the parents present. One mom had several children at the Health Unit. She brought her 18 month old last. We did a “knee-to-knee” dental exam and “lift-the-lip.” As we looked at this child’s teeth, I noticed the start of cavities. Not just white lines, but brown, stained upper anterior teeth with ditching in them. Further investigation revealed that the mom was breastfeeding ad lib, wasn’t brushing for the child, and that the family had cavities themselves.

I encouraged brushing at least 2-3 times a day with fluoride toothpaste and showed how to brush. I also discussed decay-causing acids from the frequency of sugary drinks, such as juice, pop, or even milk. Breast milk was the best option for her child so I encouraged continuing on, but really stressed the importance of brushing with fluoride toothpaste, having fluoride varnish done, and taking her child to the dentist. I said if we did these things, her child may not have to have work done in the hospital within the next year or two, and we could keep those cavities “at bay” until the child was able to sit in the dental chair to have the work done.

The next time I spoke with mom, she had taken him to the dentist and was brushing lots with fluoride toothpaste. The dentist had scooped out some decay and burnished the fluoride varnish into the cavitation. The fluoride varnish was done routinely (about every 2-3 months) and the teeth strengthened. We built a relationship of trust through these fluoride varnish appointments. Her child had some dental work done while sitting in the chair at 5 years of age. The upper anterior teeth weren’t involved; it was the back molars that had fillings done. There was no hospital work done and fewer cavities/fillings. Overall, we saw much better outcomes. We still have a trusting relationship when I see her and her family in the community. Now, her children are having children: the next generation. Hopefully there will be more great changes in their dental health and overall health!

Thank you card

Thank you card received by a Certified Dental Assistant.


This is a very special card to me. The inside note says, “You have been an amazing ‘Tooth Fairy’ for us!”

This was given to me by a very grateful young mother. This mom’s 2.5 year old was in urgent need of dental treatment. When they came to me, he had already been on antibiotics and was not sleeping or eating very much. Mom was very worried and did not know where to start to help her son.

Because of some special circumstances, this mom had spent over two years trying to figure out the paperwork to get dental coverage for her son. She had even started some personal fundraising for dental care, but even these funds had to be redirected to a family emergency.

I got involved and supported the many levels of communication required in this case. There was communication to coordinate with a dental office (which took the case knowing that they may not be paid), local government staff for travel arrangements, local and regional administrators, doctors’ offices, Save a Smile program, dental therapist, and a local church.

Ultimately, people worked together and this child received full treatment within one month of their visit with me! The family was not able to pay the dental office in full at the time but the mom is still committed to sending this office extra money as she is able to. Mom is so thankful that her child sleeps and eats well and can run and play as a child should. I see him regularly for fluoride varnish; he is doing very well and will start kindergarten in the fall. He and others like him are why I love my job!


After I graduated as a Certified Dental Assistant and started working, I quickly realized that chair-side assisting wasn’t for me. I wasn’t proud of the work I was doing or the setting I worked in. I job-hopped for a while gaining experience and looking for something that would satisfy my mind. The job-hopping stopped when I was hired as a Public Health Certified Dental Assistant!

Public health has given me the opportunity to use my life skills and personal abilities in my daily work in a way that I wasn’t able to in an office setting. I’ve also had a lot of personal growth in this career. It has come to me through different work experiences such as teaching clients, presenting to groups, coaching clients through oral hygiene changes, learning about statistics and cultures, gaining computer skills, and the freedom to use my creativity to reach people when the “usual” way doesn’t work.

My career as a Public Health Certified Dental Assistant has contributed to me being a well-rounded person with the confidence to tackle whatever is in front of me.

Shirley Gray-Kealey

About Shirley Gray-Kealey

Shirley is the Team Lead for Dental Programs at Northern Health. She moved to Terrace for a two year position as a Dental Hygienist and has stayed for 27 years! She feels it's a privilege to live and work in the North. She loved teaching children and has been mistaken for the tooth fairy! She is not magic like the tooth fairy, but she is proud to lead a real team of preventive dental specialists in the North who work hard to ensure children keep their teeth healthy for a lifetime.


Begin dental care early!

Young child at dentist's office.

Baby teeth are important for jaw development, chewing, speech development, and spacing. Mouth care for children starts sooner than you may realize!

April is National Oral Health Month and is a great time to think about teeth and our children’s teeth!

Baby teeth are important for:

  • Jaw development – chewing stimulates proper jaw growth.
  • Chewing – food broken down makes digestion easier.
  • Speech development – properly aligned teeth aid in speech.
  • Spacing – baby teeth guide permanent teeth into proper position. Children start to lose their baby teeth around 6 years of age and all the way up until around 14 years of age.

Mouth care for children starts sooner than you may realize

Tooth decay can start as soon as baby teeth appear (around 6-12 months of age). Young children are not able to clean their own teeth. As a parent, you must do it for them when they are very young and do it with them as they get older. Brush your child’s teeth morning and night with a rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.

Canadian Dental Association guidelines for toothpaste amount.

Brush morning and night with a small amount of fluoride toothpaste. For children under 3, a rice-sized amount of toothpaste is sufficient. For children 3 and older, aim for a pea-sized amount.

Visits to your dentist

The Canadian Dental Association recommends your child’s first visit to be “within 6 months of the eruption of the first tooth or by one year of age.”

What is early childhood tooth decay?

Early childhood tooth decay is the main cause of tooth decay for children under the age of 4. It is a serious disease that can destroy teeth but it can be prevented!

  • Brush your baby’s teeth morning and night with a rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.
  • Avoid letting your baby drink from a sip cup or bottle constantly throughout the day.
  • Never put baby to bed with a bottle as they may fall asleep with milk or juice still in their mouth.
  • Lift your child’s lip once a month to check teeth for chalky, dull white spots or lines which are early signs of tooth decay (cavities). Catch small problems early.
  • Drink water for thirst between regular meals and snacks.
  • Choose healthy foods.
  • Visit your dental office regularly. Catch small problems early – before they become big problems.

For more information, visit the Canadian Dental Association’s Dental Care for Children page.


Brenda Matsen

About Brenda Matsen

Born and raised in B.C., Brenda completed her diploma in dental hygiene in 1987, moved back to northern B.C. to work, raised her four sons in Prince George and, in 2009, obtained her BHSc. Brenda is the manager of the Northern Health Dental Program and has been with Northern Health since 2002. She is passionate about making a difference and appreciates the "can do" attitude of fellow northerners. When not at work, Brenda can be found enjoying the great outdoors in a variety of activities with her husband and Vizslas, throughout all our beautiful seasons.