Dr. Michelle Agpalza-Santos
One smile at a time:The road to Canada for Dr. Michelle Agpalza-Santos
by Amalia Manrique-Pempengco
She worked hard to challenge the national dental board examination – a road not many new immigrants would dare tread.It was a cold blustery spring day in 1998 when Michelle first set foot in Canada. She came to attend a funeral. She was given a parka to put on but as she stepped out of Winnipeg’s airport, a sudden gust of frosty wind on her face gave her a chilly welcome she would never forget. She had no plans of staying in Winnipeg as she had left her heart in Manila.
A chip off the old block
Two years earlier, Michelle graduated from the University of the Philippines (UP) Faculty of Dentistry. Her diligence and hard work paid off as she was awarded the Most Outstanding Clinician medal. Michelle takes after her tatay (dad), Dr. Ezra Agpalza of San Agustin, Isabela, who worked his way to become a dentist and eventually owned a small dental clinic in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. Michelle recalls stories of her dad’s inventiveness and resourcefulness; he sometimes had to improvise or even build his own dental equipment. “He modified the aquarium pump and turned it into a dental suction. Back then, there were no power tools!” she relates. Her father also sold his homemade dental equipment to his classmates to help pay for his tuition. His example was a source of inspiration for the young Michelle. After graduation from university and passing the board exam, Michelle found herself helping around in her dad’s dental clinic until she came to Canada. Her mom, Teresita Agpalza, who is from Sta. Rosa, was likewise a hard worker. She gave up her career as a teacher at Arellano High School to take care of her family.
Getting there: the road to her dentistry practice in Canada
Encouraged by relatives in Winnipeg, she decided to explore the requirements of earning a license to practice dentistry in Canada. Driven by a thirst for knowledge and a deep sense to expand her horizons, she worked hard to challenge the national dental board examination. A road not many new immigrants would dare tread. Undeterred by the hoops and hurdles that must be overcome to get a Canadian license, she went ahead and took the first three of four exams that were offered only in BC. For her last exam, she had to travel to Nova Scotia. This was a practical exam, so she had to bring along her own patients and pay their way and lodging. Four exams, many sleepless nights, and a sizable bank loan later, she obtained the coveted license to practice dentistry in Canada. This was no small feat for a young newcomer with foreign credentials. Michelle is now a member of the Manitoba Dental Association and the Winnipeg Dental Society, while still a member of the Philippine Dental Society.
Starting life in Canada
Like most of us, starting a new life in Canada was an uphill climb for Michelle. Because her parents and beloved boyfriend were halfway across the world, she spent many hours in quiet desperation. She must have cried the Red River, waiting and hoping that someday soon she would see them again. She saved all her cash gifts from birthdays to buy phone cards just to keep in touch. There were no online chats at that time. She didn’t have her own computer to do email, either.
With her new license in hand, she landed a job as a dentist in a Winnipeg dental clinic in 1999. A year later, after accepting a marriage proposal by long distance telephone, she went back to the Philippines for a few weeks to marry her long-time boyfriend, now Attorney Orlando (Olan) Santos. In 2001, Olan joined her in Winnipeg.
“What I like best about my job”
After 10 years of dental practice in Canada, Michelle finds developing relationships with her patients most rewarding. “I have patients who first came to me as pregnant mothers. Then the toddlers came for treatment. Now these kids have grown taller than me and they still come.” Her patients, whatever size, age and background, have grown so comfortable in her presence that they are able to freely ask questions. “I make sure they fully understand the problem and treatment options so they can participate in the decision making.” At one time, a patient approached her in the restaurant, opened her mouth wide and asked, “Doktora, paki tingnan mo nga itong ngipin ko?” (Doctor, would you please look at my tooth?”) Where else could you find a dentist so approachable as that?
Opening soon! Dr. Michelle Agpalza-Santos Dental Clinic
Dr. Michelle Agpalza-Santos with husband Orlando Santos and sons Roland Nino (left) and Roland Lukas (right)
A firm believer in the team approach to health care, Michelle has trained her receptionist, dental assistants, and dental hygienist to deliver the same personal touch that she is known for. She also collaborates with oral surgeons, orthodontists, and other specialists to ensure that her patients’ needs are completely looked after in a timely fashion. “I feel a deep sense of fulfilment when my patient, who once entered my clinic in pain over a tooth ache, can come out smiling with healthy gums and teeth.”
While she is proud to have a loyal following of Filipino patients – around 70% of her patients – Michelle is equally proud to have non-Filipinos trusting her with their oral health. When one non-Filipino patient heard of her plan to start her own clinic, she emphatically asked Dr. Agpalza, “Please let me know where you are going. I follow the people, not the business.”
If you had three wishes, what would they be?
Michelle's wishes reflect her deep sense of family - something we can all relate to. She wishes to live long enough to see her grand kids. Michelle made sure that her husband Olan was within earshot when she said, “I wish we would both die together.” To which Olan lovingly chortled, “Idadamay mo pa ako!” (Why do you have to include me?) Michelle and Olan have been married for 9 years, and their love and devotion to each other remain strong. They have been blessed with two handsome boys, Roland Lukas (6 years old) and Roland Nino (1 year old).
The journey of Dr. Michelle Agpalza-Santos is no less than inspiring. This go-getter, achiever, and self-starter has managed to stand up to many challenges and she overcame the hurdles of starting out and establishing a dentistry practice in this new country. Now, with the continued support of her wonderful family, she is taking another step to give more to the community, one smile at a time.