Posted on 11th October 2019
From the outside looking in, Alissa and Hosam are a fairly average family. With three children (aged two, four-and-a-half and eight), Alissa juggles work and family like many working mothers – lecturing at the university and working three days in private practice. A hands-on dad, Hosam drops the two oldest children at school in the morning and looks after the youngest. In the afternoons, children are ferried to sports and after-school activities and in the evening, when the kids are asleep, the busy couple tackle the extra work dentists often do, such as lectures, exam questions and research.
But aside from life’s general “busyness”, the family has an additional challenge day-to-day – cancer.
Alissa and Hosam were newly married and busily working (Alissa in the oral medicine oral pathology training program and Hosam as a dentist, six days a week) when Hosam was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer.
Although it would have been understandable for their world to come crashing in after such a shocking diagnosis, Alissa says Hosam just “got on with it”, much as she did. Alissa admits that Hosam probably worked even harder after his diagnosis, because he knew the cancer would, eventually, end his career early. Alissa continued with her training, while also giving birth to their first child; the couple decided to start a family earlier than planned due to Hosam’s altered life expectancy.
“Hosam has always jumped straight back into work after all his cancer reoccurrences,” Alissa says. “He only took off six weeks for his second brain tumour and that was mainly due to our son being born. Our son had to have a few operations as a neonate, so I think Hosam was home for our baby more than himself!
“Hosam had a pneumothorax and went back to work the next day. He had emergency abdominal surgery and took two days off work, and took a couple of weeks off when he was having palliative radiotherapy to a bone met.”
Support from friends and colleagues
Alissa says the dental community – both their colleagues and their university friends – have been hugely supportive; stepping up a notch in 2017, after Hosam suffered a stroke.
“It was a tough time,” Alissa says. “Hosam was diagnosed with his third reoccurrence of the brain tumour and had surgery to remove it. He went back to work five weeks later – and had the stroke.”
What followed were a chaotic few months, as Hosam spent a month in hospital and Alissa single-handedly moved house – complete with a two-month-old infant.
“Our friends from uni organised someone to cook dinner for me and the kids every week – some people weren’t in WA, but they had their parents drop off food. It was so heart-warming.
“Our friends then paid for a cleaner to come every week to help me, too,” Alissa adds. “It was so incredibly thoughtful and supportive. Hosam was in rehab for six months as an outpatient and our class continued to have our house cleaned that whole time.”
Although Hosam’s health has since declined, the offers of help have not. “Dentists often reach out to offer support. The support from the dental community is amazing and we are so grateful to everyone.”
Alissa and Hosam are fortunate to not only have supportive friends and colleagues, but also employers.
“We both have had the same workplaces since graduation, so our employers have seen the ups and downs with us,” Alissa says.
“Hosam’s work was really supportive. From 2010 to 2017 he had many medical catastrophes but they always made sure he was still an important part of the team. Whenever he was ready to return, he had a chair and nurse ready and waiting. They were genuinely concerned about him, and his health was paramount to anything else.
“Hosam hasn’t worked since 2017, yet he still gets invited to the staff parties and is contacted weekly by someone from the practice to see how he is fairing.
“My work has been equally as amazing,” Alissa continues. “After our middle child’s birth, I delayed my return for three months until his health settled, and the other specialists covered for me whilst I was away. When Hosam has medical emergencies, they have always been really flexible and supportive and again genuinely care about us all.”
The importance of the practice manager
The support of Alissa’s practice manager has been particularly valuable – she understands and empathises with the medical crises while also accepts that each challenge is only a short-term burden to the practice.
“My practice manager touches base often to see what she can do to help,” Alissa says. “The loyalty and comradery that comes from the support of an employer during a challenging time is immeasurable. These sorts of events and the way people band together really makes a strong, cohesive team.”
Dr Davinia Balasubramaniam is the practice manager at Alissa’s workplace – Perth Oral Medicine and Dental Sleep Centre – and says there was no hesitation to help and support the family when Hosam became sick.
“We just needed to figure out what needed to be done to support Alissa,” she says, “whether that meant cancelling clinics at the last minute or booking her up more on a day that she was able.
“We try to imagine ourselves in that position and think how we can alleviate some of the issues instead of us being another problem. We make allowances and the practice still runs smoothly.”
Davinia says communication is key in creating a flexible, supportive workplace. “Warn me as much as you can so we can plan together,” she says. “The more that we discuss and the more open we are, the easier it is to make the clinic work for everyone. Constant communication between us will make everyone’s life so much easier.
“With Alissa’s situation, sometimes things are last minute and that is the way it is, but where we can, we love to be able to plan and organise ourselves.
“We are very lucky,” Davinia adds. “The way that Alissa comes into work and is still an amazing clinician while coping with everything that is going on around her – how can you not support that? She is amazing and we are so proud that she is with us.”
One who clearly sees the silver lining, Alissa says that Hosam’s illness has, without a doubt, made her more empathetic and understanding to her patients’ needs.
“Being in oral medicine, we do have patients with quite pressing issues – life-threatening and life-altering conditions. I have sat on the other side of the table enough times to know how scary and overwhelming these diagnoses are and that timely management can make all the difference between a good or bad outcome.
“I also appreciate limitations well – limitations in imaging, in clinicians, in medication. With Hosam’s cancer being rare, it has made me appreciate more that these limitations can be worked around and that if something doesn’t work or something doesn’t make sense, then perhaps it needs to be approached in a different manner. It perhaps has helped me become a better diagnostician.”
For dentists who might face their own personal challenges, Alissa urges them to accept the help that’s offered.
“Feeling sad and overwhelmed is okay; the sun will still rise tomorrow,” she says. “Enjoy life now as much as you can. These illnesses take away our loved ones early enough as it is, so don’t let it steal your happiness now, too.
“Loved ones and memories, experiences and new sensations are more important than possessions ever will be. Collect more of them and less of the ‘stuff’.
“Finally, if any support is ever needed by anyone else in the community, we are always here. The dental community has done so much for us, that if we can be of any assistance to anyone else, we would love to help.”