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Providing free dental care on remote Tongan island a rewarding exercise for Lower Hutt soldier

On the remote Tongan island of Lifuka, New Zealand Army Dental Hygienist, Lance Corporal Victoria Nawalaniec, found herself a long way from her private practice roots.

27 May, 2024

The Wellington woman was one of five dental personnel deployed on Exercise Tropic Twilight as part of a wider NZ Army contingent.

They worked together to see almost 200 patients and perform oral hygiene care, fillings, root canals and extractions.

“It was my first deployment and it was definitely a change from my office in Burnham – working in the heat, with a field kit and with a new team presented some challenges,” she said.

“However, you soon find a routine and together we had great success.”

Born and raised in Lower Hutt, Lance Corporal Nawalaniec fell into dentistry by chance.

“I actually never finished high school but eventually ended up getting a job as a dental assistant. After completing my training at Otago University, I never looked back.

“You really just have to find what interests you.”

After 17 years in the dental industry, Lance Corporal Nawalaniec joined the NZ Army six years ago out of a desire to focus on helping people; Exercise Tropic Twilight offered the chance to do just that.

Working with field kits out of the old hospital on Lifuka, which is part of the Ha’apai island group, she and her colleagues provided free dental care to anyone who visited.

“Every day was different there, we had booked appointments and walk-ins, from children to adults. There were even people who had travelled in from smaller islands who had heard about us.”

Five weeks of experiencing Tongan culture provided her with some valuable takeaways.

To have the opportunity to go there was really refreshing, helping people in need, there was less pressure to be rushing all the time and it was a good break from the normal routine. You really just need to stop sweating the small stuff.

Tropic Twilight 3 v3

Dental Hygienist, Lance Corporal Victoria Nawalaniec, was one of five dental personnel deployed to Tonga on Exercise Tropic Twilight, as part of a wider New Zealand Army contingent completing health and construction projects

This is important to Lance Corporal Nawalaniec, who moved from private dental practice after completing a dental hygiene maternity cover contract with the New Zealand Defence Force, which allowed her to shift gears.

“I found people got consumed with profits rather than putting the patient first, and it got quite stressful. Whereas in the Army, I can treat soldiers with the care they require without thinking of the monetary value.

“I also get time to do physical training as part of my job - it’s much better for my mental health,” she said.

“I used to be quiet shy, but now working with people every day I am more outgoing and comfortable.

“I’m even able to give oral health classes to large groups in the Army, something I never thought I would do.”

Tropic Twilight is an annual exercise, funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It returned to Tonga for the second year in a row to support the recovery from the 2022 Hunga Tonga - Hunga Ha’apai eruption.

Almost 60 NZ Army personnel were joined this year by soldiers from Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Australia, United Kingdom and Japan, spending five weeks in the Ha’apai Islands completing health and construction projects to support the Pacific kingdom’s resilience to natural disasters.