By Shurna Decou
For many dentists, the pressure of running a dental practice, paying off a mortgage and a student loan debt, as well as balancing a family, make the notion of volunteering feel like a far off idea.
But dentists who find a way to break from their hectic schedule to provide care to low income and vulnerable patients at a free dental clinic find themselves rejuvenated. It’s an unexpected sense of fulfillment.
Some dentists start blocking off volunteer time on their calendar, like a vacation day. Others think of more ways to volunteer and ask their colleagues to join them.
Tapping into the passion
They are rediscovering their love of being a dentist, explains Todd Hartsfield, DDS, of Southeast Community Health Systems in Louisiana. They are building connections with people from low-income and vulnerable communities – mothers, fathers, grandparents, children – and they feel good inside knowing that they are impacting individuals who have no other place to go.
“I know when I wake up in the morning that I am going to be helping people, who without me being at the dental clinic, wouldn’t have the help they need,” Dr. Hartsfield says
Free Dental Clinic Day in Baton Rouge
Hundreds of people wait outside the free dental clinic offering medical, vision and dental care at the Baton Rouge Airport multipurpose building.
Since the clinic was not taking appointments, many people got in line the night before. A couple people wait in wheelchairs. Volunteers hand out peanut butter crackers to help keep patients comfortable while they wait.
Inside the building, general dentists, oral surgeons, hygienists, assistants, retired dentists and dental school professors wait to volunteer. The dental clinic is hopping, and Dr. Hartsfield is on triage.
“First, I assess them to see what they need,” Dr. Hartsfield says. “If their teeth need to come out, I send them over to x-ray, then I send them to the oral surgery department.
“If they need fillings, it’s the same thing. We take x-rays to see how bad the decay is and send them to the dentists who are just doing fillings. If they have gum disease or tartar buildup, we send them over to the hygiene department.”
One benefit to volunteering is the sense of adventure it brings when dentists step into a community that is significantly different from their everyday lives. Getting involved with people in their community can give providers a fresh understanding and appreciation for cultural and societal differences.
And for stressed out dentists, serving people who are in pain and lack resources can get them out of their own heads. This in turn can lower stress, decrease their risk of depression and improve their overall sense of wellbeing.
Challenges in volunteering
For first time volunteers, finding the right event is key to breaking away from the daily grind. Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, inertia can set in.
Hartsfield recommends picking an established organization with a track record like ADA Missions of Mercy, which offers one- and two-day dental clinics around the country. Experienced organizers will likely have the logistics worked out, like equipment, supplies, and parking, so providers can focus on patients instead of worrying whether their car is being towed or where to pick up lunch.
Volunteering in a foreign country can bring up all sorts of unexpected hiccups. But would-be volunteer dentists can avoid most problems by spending a little time getting familiar with local customs.
Travel advisories on the U.S. State Department’s website is another excellent resource on potential problems. Also, taking time to learn a couple phrases like “hello” or “thank you” can go a long way in connecting with the local community and enhancing the volunteer experience abroad.
Even with challenges, dentists say the benefits of volunteering are worth the effort.
“Giving back is what it’s all about,” Dr. Hartsfield says. “We are so lucky to do what we do, and there is such a great need.”
Editor’s note: Unum Dental and Vision was a corporate sponsor of the Baton Rouge Free Clinic which included employee volunteers and 500 free eyeglasses.