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Service in Dental School

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    During dental school, our experience is shaped by a multitude of areas – didactic work, clinical experience, and organizations. One area that I’ve come to find is essential for not only our time in dental school but for our futures as providers is service. I can still remember the first time that I heard about the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship program, a program that seeks to carry out sustainable community health programs to address health issues in vulnerable populations. When two Schweitzer fellows stood up to present their project on improving the oral health of local developmentally disabled residents, my attention was immediately captured by their enthusiasm and dedication to an underserved population. By creating a project that addressed the oral hygiene of developmentally disabled residents in our community, the two presenting fellows created an immensely successful project that helped improve the oral health of a population in need. But perhaps the most important characteristic of this need is that it is multifaceted. As I began my own investigation and learned more, it became clear that occupational therapy was another need of this population that has not been directly addressed. Occupational therapy has the potential to significantly improve the overall quality of life of a resident, and it is a service that when combined with oral health education, helps address each resident’s needs on a more holistic level. 

    During our project, my partner Carli and I, along with Monica, an occupational therapy student, visit local group homes and provide oral health and occupational therapy recommendations for each resident. It has truly been rewarding to work to improve the oral health of others in a setting outside of school. It is amazing to observe firsthand how much love the residents have for one another and the staff at each home. We usually arrive right after dinner which is a time of sharing and enjoying others’ company. As we walk in, we often hear happy voices and laughter, and it is clear that we are very lucky to be able to work with such houses. At our last visit to houses, it often evident that the staff and residents have really taken our suggestions to heart as residents who had previously hardly flossed are now trying out floss picks while others come up to us and excitedly tell us that they are now brushing for a full two minutes.

    My experience as a Schweitzer fellow has reminded me that the focus of service is not only about what you can do for others, but how you do it. When we come up with protocols for each resident, it is not enough to just suggest that the resident switch to an electric toothbrush or floss more. We need to make these suggestions in a way that fits into the resident’s needs, lifestyle, and desires. One resident had an electric toothbrush but never turned it on and used it as a manual toothbrush. After talking to the resident about why she didn’t ever turn the toothbrush on and the possible ways that doing so could benefit her, we suggested she try it once and see if it worked for her. By the last visit, she was using the toothbrush as an electric toothbrush by herself. Reverence for her and her lifestyle was really key to her change. I would encourage all dental students to spend time in service – my time in dental school would certainly not be complete without this experience.