How many of us can say that
the dental nurse we met in school
is our friend? The former patients
of Mdm Fatimah Faridah Merican
certainly can.

Mdm Fatimah’s young patients may have forgotten what she said to them during their dental check-ups in school many years ago. But it’s safe to say they’ll always remember how she made them feel.

“If children have pleasant experiences in their school dental clinics, they’re more likely to go for check-ups when they’re adults,” she says. “That was what I kept in mind when I was a school dental nurse.”

Mdm Fatimah joined the School Dental Service in 1964, at the age of 18. Her dental-technician father had encouraged her to enrol in the dental nursing course at the Institute of Health. Two-and-a-half years later, Mdm Fatimah began workingat Bedok Boys’ and Bedok Girls’ Schools. Following that, she served 18 years at Balestier Primary School (BPS) and 12 yearsat Methodist Girls’ School (MGS).

Mdm Fatimah says the many dental officers she worked with over the years inspired her with their kindness. Among them were the late Dr G. J. Holmberg, Dr Lilian Wee and Dr Eu Oy Chu. “They always told me, ‘Treat the children like your own’,” she recalls.

Mdm Fatimah always had a way with her young patients. She kept a few Archie and Casper comic books on hand to keep them occupied while they waited their turns.

Soft music and plants made the dental clinic more welcoming. “I remember my own fear of going to the dentist when I was young; those drilling sounds made me nervous,” she says. “So I understood why some children might be afraid. We helped the children overcome their fear slowly, and they’d be fine the next time around.”

Now 69, Mdm Fatimah retired in 2006 after 42 years with the School Dental Service. Her patients have all grown up, but a few still keep in touch with her. Three boys from BPS who are now in their 40s and have become fathers catch up with her regularly during Chinese New Year. Over Mdm Fatimah’s homemade cookies, they swap the latest details of their lives. It’s something they’ve done since their teens.

“The first time they came to visit me, I was living in a walk-up apartment. From my window, I could see them practising their New Year greetings, with two mandarin oranges in their hands,” she recalls with a laugh.

One MGS girl would go to the dental clinic almost every afternoon to wait for her father to pick her up. Those afternoons spent quietly together sealed a friendship that has lasted till today. “She’s a doctor now and we still meet up,” Mdm Fatimah says. “I attended her wedding and visited her when she had her first child.”

When people think of their school days, their teachers and classmates – not the dental nurses they met – spring to mind, Mdm Fatimah says. “But my former patients regard me as their friend,” she adds. “I guess I must have made them feel special.”