Inside Dental Assisting
Nov/Dec 2012
Volume 10, Issue 6

Acting Locally

Dental assistants reach out through career and volunteer opportunities

Kathy Zwieg, CDA, LDA

Over the years, a steady stream of compelling stories involving dental assistants who make a difference in the lives of others have graced my email. However, whenever I speak with these individuals about what brings them to do this kind of work, they usually steer the conversation away from themselves, choosing instead to focus on the organizations and individuals they serve. The three assistants featured here are no different. They love their work, want to engage others, and are committed to continual learning so they can contribute more. Their stories represent thousands of other dental assistants around the nation who find the time and the energy to give back to the community.”

Dental Assisting Students Contribute While Learning

“We Care” is a service-learning project facilitated by the Manatee Technical Institute (MTI) Dental Assisting Program in Bradenton, Florida and the brain child of its Program Director, Kim Bland, CDA, EFDA, MEd. This innovative labor of love addresses a serious need, introduces dental assisting students to community service, and provides some of their primary clinical experience. Under the direct supervision of local volunteer dentists, dental assisting students dental radiographs, coronal polish, fluoride varnish treatments, and dental sealants to underserved children of the Manatee School District. Dentists provide examinations and referrals to those children needing additional restorative treatment, and the Manatee District school nurses locate appropriate resources for free or reduced dental care for the children in need. “You have kids in here who don’t even want to eat, they are in so much pain,” says Bland. 

Piloted in the 2008-2009 school year, the project was originally planned to be a single event; however due to the enormous need identified by the school nurses, “We Care” was expanded to occur four times each school year. Since then, several volunteer hygienists have joined with the dental assisting students to perform any required debridement for children found to have heavy accretions. The events take place in the 10-chair preclinical training lab housed in MTI facility at the Lakewood Ranch Campus in Bradenton, Florida.

The “We Care” project has been supported by several grants that have provided for the purchase of instruments and equipment including handpieces, an ultrasonic scaler and tips, hand scalers, curettes, and other basic instruments. Bland says they are currently seeking funds for the purchase of a new rapid sterilizer and several more handpieces in order to be able to schedule more children per session and meet the ever-increasing demands. Consumable supplies, tooth brushes, and educational materials for each session are provided by the MTI Dental Assisting Program through another grant source that requires the program to place their students in primary care clinical experiences.

This service to the underserved K-12 students in the Manatee School District will continue to be offered as the district’s school nurses identify children with this most basic need. Bland has teamed up with Cheryl Stuart, RN, a school nurse, as co-coordinators of the project and continues to work tirelessly to procure funding and dental community volunteerism to allow the program to continue each school year.

Opening Lines of Communication

When asked about dental assistants who are committed to their work, Minneapolis-based Children’s Dental Services Executive Director Sarah Wovcha points to Jessica Rivas. “Jessica is bilingual—speaking Spanish and English—coming to CDS specifically because of her commitment to serving low-income children and assisting families with language barriers so they can utilize their insurance and dental care,” says Wovcha. Knowing families who were unable to access care in her own community while growing up, Rivas chose to give back to the community by sharing her language skills and cultural knowledge in the provision of dental care. “I came to CDS because I always wanted to work in a community kind of dental setting,” Rivas says. “I like to work with low income families because I was in the same position when I was little. It’s nice to work with people who are where you have been.”

In addition to their headquarters clinic in Minneapolis, CDS provides dental care in over 300 clinical locations: 100 sites in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, in addition to 200 mobile sites in greater Minnesota. Most are located in schools or Head Start centers. Preventive and routine dental treatment can be performed at all sites, and children with parental consent are provided dental treatment during school hours. Rivas’s typical week has her traveling to a number of different locations, sometimes cheerfully traveling over 60 miles one way. “I get to know the cities.”

Eilidh Pederson, Public Health Consultant with Children’s Dental Services, adds, “The work that Jessica does goes beyond assisting a dentist. She is the first person that our patients see when they are receiving care within schools and Head Start Centers, and thus she sets the tone for their whole experience. She is warm, calm and caring, and this comes across in the manner that she interacts with patients. For children receiving dental care within their school, it can be a scary experience because often they don’t have a parent there to comfort them. Jessica works to fill that gap by reassuring them and discussing what is going to happen. She is great with kids and has a way about her that calms and comforts even our most anxious patients.

“She also really cares about the environment in which she is working. She is constantly making suggestions on how care and the flow of care can be improved. Lastly, her language skills are amazing. She speaks fluent Spanish, as well as English, and thus enables our native Spanish-speaking families to speak in a way that is most comfortable for them. We serve a high percentage of Spanish speaking families and having Jessica share this ability is a great benefit to our patients.”

A graduate of the Dental Assisting Program at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, MN, Rivas credits her dental assisting instructors for informing her of the position with CDS when they needed a Spanish interpreter. She feels a strong sense of purpose, especially when she is able to help bridge the lines of communication with the families that she sees. “Most of them speak Spanish, but they don’t request an interpreter. They just kind of nod their head and go along with what you’re saying, even though they do not understand. It’s nice we’re there to be able to talk to them and answer their questions. We have better outcomes.

“Many of our patients have never been to a dental clinic located at a school or have not seen a dentist in a while,” Rivas explains. “So they’re a little nervous and we just talk to them and give them a tour of the clinic. When we go to the Head Start Programs with young children, a number of them don’t speak English. Recently, there was a little boy crying because his mother was not with him, we were able to talk to him and calm him down to do the exam with us.”

As a Licensed Dental Assistant in Minnesota, Rivas utilizes a number of expanded functions on a regular basis. She hopes to be able to obtain Minnesota restorative functions training utilizing amalgam, composites and other materials so she can contribute more within the team. For now, she looks for ways to improve communication, organization and efficiency wherever the day takes her. “I feel we could see more children if we were more organized,” she says. She encourages other dental assistants to look into this type of practice as there is a tremendous need. “It’s fun to work with schools and in the community. When CDS started, there were only a handful of people, look what happens when word gets around.”

Restoring Confidence and Health

A dental assistant for 5 years, MichelleTellez has been volunteering with the Santa Barbara-Ventura Counties Dental Care Foundation for the last two, and. Executive Director Elizabeth L. Layne, DDS is grateful. “Michelle is always there for you if she can be,” she states.

Tellez works full time with Dr. Luz Cubillos, who also volunteers with the Foundation, and encouraged her to participate as well. They typically volunteer together as part of the team on the Foundation’s mobile dental unit on Saturdays, where Tellez consistently goes above and beyond, according to Layne.

Tellez feels it is important to personally and respectfully greet every patient and “let them know what we’re planning to be doing for the day, before I take the x-rays. I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. The doctor diagnoses, then I set up either for cleaning or treatment.

“I do understand most Spanish,” Tellez adds.”I try to speak as much as I can but I am not fluent. Recently, a child from second grade came in and his teeth were severely decayed. He said that people laughed at him at school because his teeth were black. We were able to fix his smile, remove the decay and place fillings. When he came back for more treatment, he would say, ‘thank you guys,’ because he felt really good and was happy to see us. He was afraid when he first came, but I sat and explained every little thing that we would be doing, showed him everything, and after awhile he knew that we were there to help him. We were his first visit to the dentist ever, now he tells us he’s brushing and flossing. That experience was my most rewarding time in assisting, knowing I helped him feel good about himself.”

Wanting to be able to do more as a dental assistant. Tellez has completed her California Radiation Safety Program coursework and is in the process of obtaining her RDA license. She encourages everyone to volunteer in a setting like this at least once; “Not only is it a great experience, but it makes you feel really good to be able to help those less fortunate, giving them an opportunity to feel good about their smile, giving them that confidence. I strongly suggest you try this path, you will fall in love with it.”

For more information, visit www.childrensdentalservices.org.
For more information, visit www.sbvcds.org.
For more information, email blandk@manateeschools.net.

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