Dr Sajeev Koshy is not your ordinary dentist. One could even call him the philanthropic dentist given his illustrious career which has been largely influenced by his strong sense of moral and social justice. From volunteering for oral health care in detention camps around the world to now working for dental health in Victoria, Koshy stands as an inspirational figure. Honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) this year, Koshy’s journey is worth visiting.

Growing up in the sixties in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Koshy says his convent education with the Carmelite nuns and Jesuit priests had an enduringly positive and emboldening influence during those formative years. He got into a lot of curricular and extra-curricular activities. Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) those days were abuzz with activities at the Russian and American cultural centres and the British Council library. And Koshy’s initiation into social activities began with his association with all these cultural hubs.

Getting into dentistry came not by chance but by sheer focus and hard work. It meant sacrificing his love for sports and a few other extracurricular activities. India then had only 12 dental colleges as opposed to the hundreds today. “My professor wouldn’t allow me to go for any of these activities because he was keen on my academic accomplishments,” he fondly recalls.

After completing his Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) from Kerala University in 1981, Koshy started practising at a place called Punalur near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. And alongside building a patient base, his interest in social work saw him spearheading state-wide agitations against the government on issues of fair education.

Koshy was also associated and providing leadership with the Junior Chamber of India (a non-profit international non-governmental organization of young people between 18 and 40 years old) and the Rotary club. Soon this catapulted him to many significant roles too in his profession. At the age of 27 he became the youngest to be elected to the Kerala State Dental Council. He was also President of the Indian Dental Association, Kerala. As President of the dental association, he led successful public oral health camps something that he was involved in even during his student days. “In one of the fishing villages in the coastal village of Trivandrum where the new port Vizhajam was coming up, we treated more than 1000 patients. So I have led successful mass public oral health camps even when I was a student.”

Of his early influences, he recalls poetess Sugutha Kumari, a Sahitya Akademi awardee and the former director of the Jawahar Bal Bhavan in Trivandrum, who taught him valuable lessons that he would go on to incorporate later in his work with the community and other social groups.

Koshy’s taste with global recognition perhaps first came from his deep commitment as a Rotarian. In 1995, he undertook volunteering work with the UNHCR for Vietnamese refugees managed by Christian Action in Hong Kong. “This was in a lonely island called Tau Au Chau off the seas in China and we were there to provide dental care. It was so rewarding. Within six months they called me back to do one more term. So I went again in 1996. I really enjoyed that and decided that I would take up these assignments once every two years.”

But working in these detention camps was also an eye opener, says Koshy. He saw good, young energetic people living in small spaces for years with basic facilities such as communal showers. At the same time he enjoyed the hospitality of the Pakistani security personnel manning the centre. “During the fasting season, these guards didn’t eat but they used to take me to their place and make food for me.” Koshy wondered where the India-Pak rivalry that people talk about was.

As a Rotarian volunteer, Koshy covered various parts of the world – from working with the Quiche Indian tribes in Guatemala to Project Amigo in Mexico to working with the Kikuyu tribes in Kenya. “These rich experiences gave me a very multicultural attitude and it was something I really valued.”

For all these works and more, Koshy won the Rotary International’s best international director award for his volunteering services for Rotary International in 1997. He was also the international chairman for Rotary Vocational Fellowship in Dentistry during 1996-97. Also, once he finished the volunteering, he enjoyed the privilege of getting into the exclusive Rotary Foundation Alumni club. “It meant I could walk into any Rotary Club anywhere in the world.”

During his stint in Hong Kong working the Vietnamese refugees, Koshy’s schedule was taking the Star ferry to central Hong Kong from where an exclusive boat would take him to the detention centres. Work got over by 2:30 pm and he had enough time to explore the city on his way back. “I used to walk along the streets of Hong Kong Central and pass by all the foreign consulate offices located in the exclusive suburb. They used to have open days and I remember walking in to the New Zealand Consulate because the schools attracted me so much.” His children who were 11 and 12 then could get an international exposure, he thought.

After consultation with his family, they made a decision to move to New Zealand. The paperwork took only two weeks. But it was a decision fraught with risks. Koshy ran the chances of not being able to practice again as he would have to reappear for exams. “It was a big sacrifice because I had everything that an average above middle class family in India had at that time and we were going to lose it once we decided to go there.”

But at the back of his mind was also a burning desire to study again. As a student in 1975 he had aspired to become an Indian Institute of Management –Ahmedabad (IIM-A) graduate but he failed to get through the written exams. “The complex was already there,” he modestly admits.

So armed with a high GMAT score which was the result of his Mexico stint, Koshy and his family took a collective decision to move to Otago in New Zealand, a town which boasts of some of the best educational institutions – among them New Zealand’s first university, the University of Otago.

What followed there was all consuming. “All four of us including my wife were studying. And that was fun and interesting for three years,” he laughs.

Koshy went on to complete MBA with flying colours. That also gave him the courage to challenge the University for specialisation in dentistry and he succeeded in getting an unconditional offer, becoming the first Indian to specialise in Endodontics. He now had two Masters’ degree – an MBA and an MDS. Thereafter he started teaching. “From being a timid person I learnt the traits of management and even learnt surviving in a western world.” But it was just not him who reaped the fruits of his new environment. His wife reskilled herself and did a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy and his sons excelled in their school.

Interestingly, his meteoric career did not overshadow his social commitment. It was while he was in New Zealand that he travelled to Guatemala to conduct oral health camps for the Quiche Indian tribes. He was also a Freemason from Trivandrum and continued that fraternity both in New Zealand and Australia.

A chance meeting with the former dean of the University of Melbourne opened the doors towards settlement in Victoria. It also helped that his elder son came here for further studies at that time.

“It was a difficult time in dentistry,” reflects Koshy. “The waiting list was long but the rest, as you say, is history.” Koshy went on to become the Director for Dental Services for South West Health Care in Warrnambool. At the same time, he was working in the Royal Melbourne Dental Hospital. He successfully managed to bring changes in dental health in regional Victoria. For instance, in Bairnsdale Regional Health Service he brought down the waiting list from 57 months to less than 7 months in two and half years. For that he won the minister’s award for the Best Healthcare Team in Victoria.

“I used different strategies to bring down the list. Numbers don’t bother me since I come from India. The only difference was we had to have a balance between quality and quantity. So adopting best practices I could bring those changes and my management training helped me. I have also done strategic reviews as a consultant in New Zealand, so that also contributed. I was multi skilled in being a specialist in dentistry and a specialist in management. One of my areas of research was benchmarking. So I could make these changes cost effectively.”

It took no time for Koshy to be known in the sector. For the best healthcare team award for Victoria, his team was pitted against the Austin health’s liver transplant speciality unit and the Adult Cystic fibrosis unit of Alfred Hospital. After that, Koshy won the Dentistry Achievement Award of the Australian Dental Association of Victoria. He also won Victoria’s first Oral Public Health Care Award of Dental Health Services Victoria. In 2012, and the Victorian multicultural award for Community Health for his work with survivors of torture. This year, his biggest honour came in the form of the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). And deservedly so.
“The OAM has come too soon,” he modestly admits. “I have been here for only 12 years now and been a citizen for eight years… This is the highest civilian honour so I will continue the work I am doing and I don’t expect anything.”

Koshy is the former federal secretary of the Australian-New Zealand Academy of Endodontics which is the apex body for endodontics in Australasia. In addition to being the Acting Head of Endodontics at The Royal Melbourne Dental Hospital Melbourne, he offers his clinical expertise to various publics dental clinics across Victoria. He is the director of Dental Services at Boort District Health and Clinical Director at Plenty Valley Community Health and regularly trains oral health professionals in a number of regional clinics. He has contributed to the workforce development of dentists in Australia by training more than 100s over the past 10 years. He has also recently been appointed by the Council of Australian Government Health Ministerial Council to the Dental Board of Australia National Scheme and is the only representative from Victoria.

Given his body of work, Koshy has no time for private practice, an avenue where he could be better financially remunerated. His clinic at South Morang is where he used to find the time once a fortnight. “I work seven days to not allow private service. I had the opportunity to make money but I chose public service. There is a saying, ‘don’t go after money, it will come to you at the right time if you are good with whatever you do’.”

Koshy’s career has gone to plan or so it seems. “I was confident of my skills and I can be innovative.” Besides providing an inspirational leadership to the profession, he has always stood for social justice and equality. “I will continue to fight for the disadvantaged groups of this country and across the world.” True enough, country Victoria seems more of a commitment given that he has been there for eight years now. After all it is not the remuneration with money, it is helping the elderly crowd of that community, he says.

With his wife Rajini Sajeev as his strongest support, Koshy says his other reason for success is the fact that he has integrated very well with his new adopted country. “You can always embrace your rich cultural past but you have to adapt and go with the values of your foster country.”

Koshy’s is a remarkable journey of resilience, commitment, hard work and inspiration!
By Indira Laisram