Welcome to the journey of Cat Burford, a dentist who found her passion for expeditionary dentistry. From living in Borneo to humanitarian work in Nepal and Zimbabwe, Cat’s story showcases how her love for travel and adventure intersected with her profession as a dentist. Her encounters with fellow adventurers on her travels led her to discover the need for dental care in remote areas.
After connecting with Wilderness Expedition Dentistry founder, Burjor Langdana, Cat became involved with World Extreme Medicine, teaching expedition dentistry. Her journey serves as a reminder that it’s possible to combine a passion for adventure with a career in healthcare.
This feature piece is sure to inspire and motivate healthcare professionals who are interested in exploring their passion for adventure and making a difference in the world.
The first glint of things to come
Dentistry became my calling following an eventful Sunday afternoon back in 1991. I was on my bike, racing my sister down a steep road in Eastbourne. As I reached top speed, I flew head-over-handlebars onto the tarmac. The next thing I remember was spitting fragments of tooth onto the road in horror. The following day was the first day of the new school year and I turned up grazed, bruised, self-conscious about my broken tooth and refusing to smile. The visit to the dentist to fix my tooth had an impact on me and set me on the path to becoming a dentist.
Geography was the only subject that made me question my career choice. It was my favourite subject and the one in which I gained the highest marks. Ultimately, I felt that I would never be giving it up, as Geography was all around me to study at my own leisure rather than at university.
It inspired me to want to travel to remote places and at the age of 19, I went to Borneo for 8 months. I lived amongst the community, a fascinating blend of tribespeople and Muslims, and taught English at the village school. The nearest internet café was a 3-hour bus ride away and it was before the era of mobile phones, so it felt like a real adventure!
Sparks as two worlds collide
While studying at Liverpool University in 2000, I attended a lecture on expedition medicine. This really sparked my interest, but I wasn’t sure how dentistry and expeditions could connect and when I looked into it further, I just drew a blank.
I continued to search my map for interesting places to visit, joining a scientific research team to study desertification in the Gobi Desert during my elective year and making an impact on my return by winning the prize for the best presentation – despite it having nothing to do with dentistry!
After graduation, I continued my adventures, completing a number of famous treks in Patagonia, Nepal and South America.
The divergent worlds of dentistry and adventure started to come together as I discovered humanitarian work, joining a project in Nepal in 2006. Shortly afterwards, I became part of a small team assessing dental needs among the Maasai communities in the Lewa valley, Kenya, administering emergency care and training local health workers in tooth extraction. The following year, I delivered oral health workshops and emergency care to street children in Gweru, Zimbabwe.
This voluntary work provided the perspective I needed and helped me to cope with the stress and demands of NHS dentistry back home.
Using holiday time to undertake these projects limited the time I could commit to projects. But I wanted to spend more of my time on this aspect of my work. In 2009, drawn by the incredible geography and outdoor lifestyle that New Zealand offers, I left the UK and worked on the South Island as the only dentist in a small community on the West Coast. Then I spent a further 5 months travelling and volunteering throughout South America.
The flames ignite as possibilities present themselves
Throughout my travels I frequently encountered fellow adventurers who, on hearing that I was a dentist, would share their own tooth-related tales that occurred far from any dental care. They all sought advice, such as the essential dental items for an expedition and practical solutions on how to fix a broken tooth or treat a toothache.
There are various dental issues that can present on expeditions and the longer the expedition is, the more likely it is for them to occur. These can range from mild problems, like fracturing a tooth on a frozen piece of chocolate in the Arctic to something more severe, such as knocking a tooth out following a fall or experiencing significant swelling from a dental abscess. Having even a small amount of knowledge on how to treat and prevent dental emergencies can determine whether someone successfully reaches that mountain summit or a situation worsens leading to the evacuation of an individual.
I searched online for information I could signpost people to and that’s when I came across Burjor Langdana, the founder of Wilderness Expedition Dentistry. I took great delight in discovering that we had both worked at the same small dental practice in New Zealand and shared mutual friends. It felt like fate!
Getting ablaze for expeditionary dentistry
I came across World Extreme Medicine during lockdown – like many I reflected on my career and recognised that over the past few years I had started to lose the balance and was feeling trapped as the demands of my work in practice intensified
I actively sought to change this and set up a LinkedIn profile, connecting with people who were already working in the areas I was interested in. Pretty quickly I linked with Mark Hannaford (founder of WEM) – he said that they were looking for dentists with experience of working in remote environments and introduced me to the team. With the aftermath of Covid and the knock-on effect increasing the pressure at work, it took a little time before I managed to shadow Burj on the Expedition and Wilderness Medicine course at Plas y Brenin. We gelled straight away and I felt like I’d finally found ‘my tribe’ amongst all the other faculty. From there, I went on to help Burj deliver his training at the conference in Edinburgh before ‘going solo,’ running the dental workshops at the course at Corfe Castle.
The field of expedition medicine often overlooks the importance of dentistry, but I feel that is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Despite its significance, there is still a lack of research available on this topic.
The dental workshops that we conduct regularly receive positive feedback from participants and I think that is partly because we teach skills that are not only beneficial for remote environments, but also applicable in daily life. Unfortunately the general public is facing challenges in accessing dental care, and as a result, many patients are first presenting themselves at A&E or GP surgeries. The intensity of tooth pain can be excruciating, with individuals often describing it as the worst pain they have ever experienced. When you are far away from a dentist and someone looks to you, expecting you to be able to help, possessing even basic dental skills can provide immense relief for both parties!
An icy conflagration beckons!
Next up for me is an expedition in November, when I’ll be skiing over 700 miles across Antarctica, from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole, hoping to become one of only a handful of women to complete this feat solo and unsupported.
I can pinpoint the moment I knew I wanted to see Antarctica for myself. My Geography teacher asked us what we thought was the largest desert on earth. She then displayed a captivating image of a vast, pristine, frozen landscape on the classroom projector. This was the lightbulb moment that sparked the desire in me to experience it first-hand.
It will take between 45 and 55 days and I will be carrying all the food, fuel, clothing and equipment for the journey in a pulk/sled that I will pull behind me, weighing around 80kg.
I’ll be using the opportunity to take part in research, taking daily saliva samples to track the effect of this endurance event on my hormones. This data will contribute to the limited information out there with regards to females and endurance sport, adding to the data pool which continues to have a male bias which negatively impacts women.
I’m also going to use my platform to educate a larger audience in oral and dental health and hope to create a more positive image surrounding dentistry.
The plan is to cover all the costs through sponsorship, whilst raising funds for Bridge 2 Aid and Community Action Nepal, helping them in the training of local people to deliver healthcare to remote communities.
In the meantime, I have recently recorded a podcast, focusing on the expedition, why it is important to me, the extensive training involved and the challenge of transitioning from being an individual that kept pretty low-key with my voluntary work to a more public, social-media savvy figure, to help attract sponsors to fund the significant costs. Take a moment and give it a listen if you like!