The price of the pandemic: Dr Ruohan Zhang 

Posted on 6th July 2021

The lockdown of 2020 and the most recent four-day stint of 2021 was difficult on everyone in the dental industry, but especially for those who ended up separated from their families as a result.

For Ruohan Zhang, the story of being away from his family started well before COVID hit our shores. When he made the decision to study dentistry at UWA, he had to leave behind his wife Olivia and family in New Zealand. 

“My wife had received an offer to complete a second degree in law just after I had accepted my DMD offer, so we made a difficult decision for me to come first to Australia and for them to follow once we had both finished our studies,” Ruohan recalls. 

“For the first three years, I flew back four times a year during our week-long semester breaks and Christmas holidays. Whenever we had a long weekend before a break or a lecture-free Friday, I would make use of the preceding weekend to stretch the visit out to 10 days, although each trip felt like the blink of an eye. It was fantastic when my wife and Albert came over in 2018 just before having Walter, as we were able to spend time together as a family for a few months before they went back to New Zealand.” 

Trying to find some balance between family and study across different continents, then five-year-old Albert ended up coming to Western Australia and joining Ruohan. 

“I really missed the chance to have some real father-son bonding experiences with Albert during my first two years in DMD,” Ruohan says. “While my wife focused on raising Walter (now two-years-old), working and concurrently studying in NZ, Albert returned with me to Perth and we embarked on a year of adventure and unknowns in DMD3. Along the way, Albert tagged along to most UDSS, ADAWA and other dental events, and really enjoyed being part of the dental community, where everyone was so accommodating and friendly.” 

COVID strikes

Unfortunately, COVID threw another spanner into the works for the family when Olivia, Albert and Walter got stuck in China whilst visiting family in January 2020. They remain stuck in China for now. “Not only have travel restrictions between China, New Zealand and Australia fluctuated throughout 2020, air travel prices had also skyrocketed and the risk of contracting COVID during travel remains undesirable,” Ruohan explains. “Hopefully, things will settle down a bit toward the middle of 2021 and they will be able to make it safely to Perth.” 

Ruohan says initially when he first moved to Perth, being away from his family took a lot of getting used to. 

“It was a major change from seeing and hugging your wife and children every night to being alone in a hot and humid student accommodation, not knowing how they were going or how my wife was coping,” he says. “The first few months were pre-occupied by quite a bit of initial concern and anxiety. 

“As time passed, however, I realised that life is what it is, especially when it is a choice you made.

“The important thing is not to focus on what you cannot control, but rather to direct your energy and attention into completing what you set out to do to make all the sacrifices worthwhile.

Instead of simply being concerned for the family, I found emotional value in making sure I completed my DMD to the highest level; putting my concern into action, for example by sending the kids toys, flowers during special dates, or organising meal packs to make their life easier; and learning to let go of worrying about the family every moment and trusting that my wife had things handled. 

“During something like COVID, which involuntarily takes away your freedoms to connect and creates so much risk in all facets of everyday life, I have found being in the right mental state and learning to direct my concern into positive actions particularly helpful in coping with what is otherwise objectively very dire and unfortunate circumstances,” he says, adding that another positive that has come out of the experience is that Albert is now fluent in mandarin. 

With China luckily in the same time zone, the family has been able to make the most of video calls, although with Olivia completing her final law papers remotely, of late the opportunities to sit down and have a good conversation have been scarce. 

Support from the dental community

Ruohan says the dental community has been a great support. “Having never been previously involved in the clinical healthcare sector, I was really surprised by how close-knit and supportive the dental community is, particularly in WA, as well as the dental school and my cohort,” he says. 

“Not only did I receive a lot of support from academic staff to reflect my family responsibilities, when we were told children couldn’t be in the hospital for the birth of our second boy, my classmate Nathan and his wife Mandy didn’t hesitate at all in offering to look after Albert for the day so we could focus on Walter. I was lucky in having a very cohesive cohort throughout the four years, and even from day one, everyone would frequently check up on how the family were doing. As a result of the shift to a post-grad degree, there were also quite a few parents in my year, between whom we could often have a chat about raising kids, school and family. 

“I have to say that even though both my wife and I like to plan everything out in advance, the sheer amount of ‘life’ that concurrently undertaking the various aspects of dental school and raising a family whilst in two separate countries throws at you was only survivable with the immense empathy and support around me across these four years.” 

Advice to others 

To other families finding themselves in separate places, either because of COVID restrictions or circumstance, Ruohan says it is never easy, but often the periods of separation are in the course of pursuing something bigger and brighter in the future, and it is important not to lose sight of this. 

“Practically, I would advise everyone to make the most of today’s technologies – not just Zoom and Facetime, but things like online shopping and meal/flower deliveries, where our ability to surprise the kids/spouse is no longer limited by time and space, and one little gesture can mean so much from across the Pacific,” he says. “Be creative, be inventive, and don’t be afraid to push your imagination. 

“Emotionally, there will always be times when it feels overwhelming and maybe even at breaking point, but I have personally gotten through it by drawing upon the experience of so many rounds of exams and hardships – which is by viewing any current predicament from the perspective of tomorrow or the final finish line, and realising that no matter how hard things feels now, we will always be there on the other side one day looking back, having surmounted the hurdle. So if we will be there one day – why not be there now.” 

In closing, Ruohan expressed sincere gratitude toward his wife and kids for supporting him through these years of dental school. 

“Currently working 6 days a week while the family are still abroad, I am loving every minute of this profession and would not have it any other way. I cannot thank my wife enough for nudging me onto this career path and shouldering so many of the family responsibilities for me to walk it, as well as the kids for being my everlasting source of motivation and determination.” 

Having spoken to many of his colleagues, Ruohan said that most students have received support from family, partners and friends throughout their time at dental school which was instrumental in their successes. In his capacity as a Past President of the University Dental Students Society, would like to acknowledge and extend thanks to all the unsung supporters who have made this career a reality for so many students. 

This story first appeared in Edition 5, 2021, of the Western Articulator magazine.