My View: My volunteer experience at a Native American dental clinic

Maryann Lehmann, D.D.S.

ALL DENTAL PROFESSIONALS NEEDED. I was sitting on a plane, reading the most recent Journal of the American Dental Association, and I, once again, saw this classified ad. The first time I saw the ad, I was on the way home from the Dominican Republic with a group from the dental school where I teach, full of all the excitement that this trip had brought, already thinking where my next service trip might be, when this popped out at me. The ad went on to say there is a dental clinic in South Central South Dakota on the St. Francis Mission Among the Lakota that is looking for volunteers to provide dental care to the residents of the reservation. That was March, and here it was October, and this time, as I read the ad, I was actually headed to the reservation.

My two hygienists, Doris Raposo and Cathleen Reich, were the energy behind making this happen. They both were jealous that I went on a service trip without them to the Dominican Republic, and although we participate in our state’s Mission of Mercy each year, usually by the end of the day we feel like we were just getting started and sad to go home. They were eager to find out more about this clinic in South Dakota and make it an office trip. We even gave it a name. Our town is Darien, Connecticut, so we started calling it Darien to Dakota. We called the director of the clinic, a dental hygienist named Marty Jones, and got some details. Sure, since this is in a different state, we had to go through some paperwork, like get a volunteer dental license in South Dakota, but the hardest part of that was finding your birth certificate. Marty was really helpful in guiding us through the process of going online with the South Dakota Board of Dentistry, having our state verify with them that we had current licenses, then we had to provide copies of our birth certificates, current CPR cards, and pay a fee of $50. After our licenses came through, which happened within a few weeks, I then provided to the clinic proof of my malpractice insurance and filled out other paperwork for the clinic. It was easier than dealing with an insurance claim dispute in my office.

Then we started thinking about the impact of all of us being gone for a week from my small office. Our front desk manager was confident she could handle things, and my dental colleague next door would be around to handle emergencies, so we scheduled a few extra days that month, but we booked off an entire week in October to take the trip.

Our new friend Marty was happy to hear we signed up to come, and she told me that they had five dental chairs and they were  “up to their ears in root canals.” I started to think I had gotten in over my head, and I needed help. One day, I literally said out loud, putting out to the universe, “My dream team to South Dakota should include an endodontist and an oral surgeon: please!” Within just a few days, in walked a new endodontist in the area, introducing herself as Dr. Carolyn Kilbride. When she saw my pictures from my trip with the dental students, she immediately said she recognized most of those people and had taken service trips with them too. When we told her of our upcoming trip, she signed on that day.

At her welcome reception at her office, I then met the final member of our dream team, Dr. Garrick Alex, the oral surgeon, who was about to open a practice down the street from me. He ended up not only being our oral maxillofacial surgeon, but he also coined the motto of the trip,“Get involved!” The team was formed.

We flew to Rapid City, South Dakota, and rented cars to drive about two and a half hours across the Badlands to the Rosebud Reservation. It was a beautiful drive. The mission has guesthouses for volunteers at no charge, and we all stayed in a guesthouse right across the street from the dental clinic. It was clean and new and comfortable. We cooked at night and sat around the dinner table with another new friend, a dental assistant from South Dakota. Being from Connecticut, we became Team Nutmeggers and initiated even our South Dakota friend as a team member. We talked about the patients we treated that day, and there were lots of them. As a dentist for over 30 years, I have to tell the truth that I was happy I could keep up with the young docs. Whenever the thought crossed my mind to slow down, there was Dr. Alex saying, “I have a case here … You want to get involved?” We told stories from home, we laughed and we felt a renewed purpose. For those of us who have been in dentistry longer, it reminded us why we got into it in the first place. For the younger ones, it gave them even more confidence.

For my immediate staff, it gave us a chance to discuss things about the office we never have time to deal with back home. It was like being on a dental retreat.

Marty has an assistant, Miranda, who kept the clinic humming. She really got involved. Both ladies were Native Americans and gave us a lot of background on the area and the mission.

The clinic had modern equipment including digital X-rays, autoclave sterilization and a panoramic X-ray unit. We had done some fundraising and were able to buy six handpieces for the clinic and get donations from Ultradent, Centrix and Sunstar. It was a very comfortable work environment. We were able to do over $51,000 worth of dentistry in just four days.

The bonuses came when we got home. I did not expect all the enthusiasm from our patients. We had talked with people before the trip, but after we returned and had pictures to show them and stories to tell, the excitement started. Patients were making appointments because they wanted to hear more about it. The local paper interviewed me to do a story. Other dentists and hygienists called asking if we were going back because they want to go. My hygienists and I were working very fast at the clinic, and when we got back home, we continued on that efficient pace. Things moved smoother, faster and better. The biggest surprise was running my month end report.

We had been gone an entire week. I expected our numbers to be down, but instead they were up. What had happened? Not only were we working smarter, but we were happy and excited, and as I say, that trip put some gas in our tanks.

I encourage everyone to think about doing some type of volunteer dentistry, whether it be at a local level, your state’s mission of mercy or a trip to a clinic like the one we went to. My advice: Get involved.

Dr. Lehmann is an adjunct clinical instruction in the division of general dentistry at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine. She’s been in private practice for over 30 years in Darien, Connecticut.

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