Note: This is the fourth of a six-part series on Meharry Medical College and the work it is doing to end health disparities.
David Smith leaned over his dad and gently pulled his dentures out. He turned to his lab space, made a few intricate adjustments, then, just as tenderly, put the dentures back in his dad's mouth.
It's not every father that has dentures made by his son.
David Smith, Sr., is proud of his son, who will soon graduate from Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry as a dentist.
"I think it is great, super good, a good profession," he said. And, spoken like a proud dad, he added, "Everyone is going to need a dentist sooner or later."
Young Smith smiled. He said working on his dad was a labor of love that will become a family story told and retold at every Thanksgiving and Christmas gathering for years. "So, it has to be done perfectly," he said, chuckling.
Smith and other third- and fourth-year Meharry dental students were carefully probing open mouths with sharp instruments in the two active dental clinics on the campus of the school in Nashville, Tenn. Looking over their shoulders were professional, experienced dentists ready to help if any questions arise.
Sascha Mallicott, a college student without dental insurance, was still smiling after Kien Chibayere finished a temporary crown and a root canal. Chibayere was making a permanent crown under the watchful eye of Dr. Roney Guinn.
"No pain," Mallicott said, smiling, in answer to a reporter's question about her treatment. Guinn was slightly offended at the notion. "What do you mean did it hurt? We don't hurt anyone."
Student doctor Dionne Tompkins treats patient Reginald
Hill during a clinic at the Meharry Medical College School
of Dentistry in Nashville, Tenn.
Attention to the students
Each year more than 2,000 hopefuls apply for the 55 vacancies in the dental school. Meharry is one of the only two historically black colleges in the country offering a doctor of dentistry degree.
Andy Ramos, a dental student from Puerto Rico, knows why so many want to get into the program.
"Professors talk to you, classes are small, and I feel like part of the community," he said.
Students are also attracted to the school because of its tradition of serving the underserved, said Dr. Janet Southerland, dean of the school of dentistry.
"Access to oral health is really a huge problem, and oral health is one of those areas that has been ignored," she said. "As the health of the mouth goes, so goes the rest of the body because it is one of the main portals."
Southerland was named dean last March and is interested in research that will lead to solving the puzzle of why African Americans carry such a heavy burden of health disparities.
She would like to sharpen the focus on research at the school of dentistry.
"Most of my background in research has been focused on diabetes, gum disease and cardiovascular disease &ellipsis;also HIV and oral cancer. I've had studies and published in those areas. But I'm really interested in just overall looking at our populations and our communities and seeing how we can best serve them, and how we can best bring this educational prevention component to it as well as provide the care."
Dr. Janet H. Southerland is
dean of the Meharry Medical
College School of Dentistry
in Nashville, Tenn.
Missing link to good health
Prevention is the key and is usually what is missing in oral health.
Dr. Eric Carter said most of the patients seen by the dental students are low income or have no dental insurance and often only come to the clinic when they are in pain, as opposed to seeking preventive care.
"Many times we have patients come in and they want to have something done immediately, like a filling or a bridge or a crown, and that is not the way a teaching institution works," he said. Patients are matched with students who need the experience the treatment would provide. Just like building a house, first the foundation has to be strong, he added.
Southerland wants to make Meharry dental school an integral part of the community.
"I want to make sure that Meharry is not just the dental school that sits on the corner of Dr. D. B. Todd and Meharry Blvd. It is actually one of those schools that is part of the community and really reaches out to the community, and the community can come to this school for the care that they need when they need it."
One way the school is achieving this goal is by offering free cleanings, screenings and sealants to children ages 1-17 each Monday in February in celebration of Children's Dental Health Month. Students from Meharry's School of Dentistry's department of pediatric dentistry will provide the services.
In September 2011, Delta Dental provided $770,000 for a 3,300-square-foot dental simulation center that will shorten the learning curve for students by allowing them to use manikin models before they are ready to work on patients.
Dr. Roney Guinn (left) consults with student doctor Kien
Chibayere while they are treating Sascha Mallicott during
a clinic at the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry
in Nashville, Tenn.
Southerland oversaw the class of 2015's white coat ceremony in August. She told the 55 students they would be her first class to see from start to finish.
Lauren Thompson was one of the 55 students who left the ceremony with a crisp, white coat on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a dentist like her father, Dr. Dwight Thompson, who graduated from Meharry in 1984.
"Meharry has always had a reputation of training strong African-American physicians, dentists and health-care providers," Dwight Thompson said. "You go through trials and tribulations, but when you come out of there you are ready to face the world."
One Meharry tradition that young Thompson does plan to continue is going back to an underserved community to practice once she has her degree.
"There is such a lack of proper health care in the U.S. right now," she said. "I do want to give back in that way."
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.