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Dental students help cancer patients, survivors
May 7, 2014
On Wednesday morning at the Dental Hygiene Lab at the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln, everyone had a reason to smile as the Dental Health program's Class of 2014 held its annual Community Health Day. This year, the students partnered with the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation to offer free fluoride trays and preventative oral education specifically geared toward cancer patients and survivors.
Co-chaired by students Sarah Guthrie and Sue Fernandes along with fellow student and clinic chair Mia Coletta, this year's event was the latest in what is an annual tradition for the Dental Health Programs. Department Chairwoman Kathleen Gazzola explained that the Programs host the day to honor both the college and the programs' commitment to community. Students choose their own communities to serve each year; in the past, they have held clinics for underserved children, special needs populations and CCRI student-athletes among others.
"Being a dental hygienist is about technical skill and scientific knowledge. But it's also about giving back to patients and to the entire community. Every single human being has a mouth, and we all deserve to have a healthy one," she said.
This year, 40 men and women were seen at the clinic. An impression was made of their teeth, from which a custom fluoride tray was sculpted. They also were seen by a dentist for a fluoride prescription if needed, and given an exam and advice on preventative care geared specifically toward patients and survivors of cancer.
The atmosphere at the clinic was a festive one, with the hallways and stations adorned with pink balloons and decorations donated by Party City, with bows and pink puffs of paper as bright as the smiles on the faces of both patients and students as they introduced themselves and got to work.
Gazzola said that when she assigned the Class of 2014 pink uniforms, she never could have imagined how appropriate those would turn out to be. Two of Gazzola's "pink ladies," Guthrie and Fernandes, took a moment out of the hustle and bustle of checking in patients to talk about why it was so important to serve this particular population.
"We've talked to a lot of survivors and patients and they always say that doctors aren't necessarily looking at their teeth; when they are asked to open their mouths, doctors are looking right past the teeth and at the tonsils," explained Guthrie. "But there are specific issues that are related to treatments such as radiation."
Fernandes said that depending upon the medications used in treatment, a cancer patient's salivary flow can be affected; medication and radiation can either stop salivary flow completely or just diminish it while in treatment.
"Dry mouth forms cavities," explained Guthrie, who said that saliva has enzymes that help break down bacteria, protecting the teeth. The fluoride trays help to strengthen the teeth and prevent further cavities.
"It's probably the most incredible thing I've ever done," said Guthrie of the event.
"I've helped in soup kitchens and volunteered before, but this is something that started from nothing and it came from all of us. So the fact that I know I directly helped someone means the world to me," said Fernandes.
The event was paid for directly through the Dental Assisting Club's funds, and the pair said that money was raised through fundraising asks and a bake sale. Local companies donated food and decorations, and local dental practices donated many of the materials. All 22 students, seven full-time faculty, two clinic doctors, and six adjunct faculty donated their time free of charge to the all-day event. Patients also received "care packages" courtesy of the Gemma Foundation, and when they were done with their time in the clinic, could go across the hall for snacks and some R&R – including manicures.
"It was a collaborative idea," said student Sabrina Gambuto, who was on hand to offer express manicures to the patients that day. "We just want to make them feel beautiful and special. It's huge to be involved in something like this. I know that cancer has affected my family, and any nice thing you can do to help is awesome."
Gambuto wasn't alone in finding inspiration from her own circle during the clinic. Student Alexis Leite, who was mixing materials to make molds with student Becca Allard, said that her grandmother died from breast cancer at the age of 29, leaving her without the chance to know her in life. "It feels great to have everyone come together to make a bigger difference," said Allard.
As it turned out, one of the patients on hand was someone who was integral to the implementation of the clinic. Carol Ann Donnelly, office manager for the Gemma Foundation, is also a two-time cancer survivor. It was Donnelly who first spoke with Guthrie and Fernandes when they approached the Gemma Foundation about the event. After she got her impressions made, she sat with Guthrie as she explained some of the preventative implications of fluoride.
"Back in 2000 when I was first diagnosed, the dentist I had at the time didn't say anything to me about the extra care that I needed while I was going through treatment. When I went through treatment again in 2005 I had a new dentist, and she gave me the special things I needed to keep my teeth in better shape. Chemo does a number on you; it doesn't just kill the cancer, it affects your bones and teeth," she shared. "And this is awesome, this is really important. And it's been a lovely experience."