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By Elena Ebrahimian DDS 2016

Over the spring break this year, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Nadi, Fiji with 21 other dental students and 13 faculty chaperones to provide free dental care and preventive resources to the people of Moala Village. I was thrilled to be carrying on the legacy that my sister, Ariana, started when she founded this mission as a Pacific dental student in 2007 with fellow classmate Lexie Lyons and alumnus Dr. Karl Brose '72.

Elena (left) and Ariana (right) with a patient.
Elena (left) and Ariana (right) with a patient.

What made this trip especially meaningful was being able to share this experience with my family. After working as a dental assistant to both my father and sister in our family’s practice, I imagined the day when I could join them as a fellow doctor. This mission trip was my first experience actually practicing dentistry with my family, and it was a very special moment to me. I was very grateful to have their support, encouragement, and advice throughout the week, and enjoyed sharing in a new cultural experience with them.

As a whole group, we accomplished a great deal of dentistry.  Of the 379 patients treated, we completed 628 extractions, 751 operative surfaces, and seven root canals. Everyone worked together as a team and brought a positive attitude, which made all the difference.

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One of the things that had the greatest impact on me occurred on our last day in Moala when one of the female leaders of the village described the impact we had on them, how their government recognized and appreciated the services we provided, how they saw an improvement in the health and lives of their people, and how grateful they were for our service to them. It made me realize the true magnitude of our work and how our mission trip really encompassed the seven core values of Pacific Dugoni: humanism, innovation, leadership, reflection, stewardship, collaboration and philanthropy. I feel so fortunate to have my family be a part of the larger Pacific Dugoni family, and I can’t wait to return to Moala next year as a third year trip leader to continue this tradition of service to others.

On Saturday, Feb. 7, Pacific Dugoni volunteers held a “Give Kids a Smile” Dental Health Fair at the school’s Hutto Patterson Pediatric Dentistry Clinic in San Francisco. Nearly 100 children received free dental check-ups and cleanings, oral health education, orthodontic evaluations and more.

We caught up with Cristina Markiewicz, DDS '16, who helped organize this year’s “Give Kids a Smile” event along with Grace Lan, DDS '16. Cristina talks about the importance of pediatric oral health and shares some memorable moments from her experiences as a SCOPE leader. She currently serves as special events coordinator for SCOPE (Student Community Outreach for Public Education).

Cristina Markiewicz (at left) at the Give Kids a Smile Dental Health Fair.
Cristina Markiewicz (at left) at the Give Kids a Smile Dental Health Fair.

What did you learn from organizing this year’s Give Kids a Smile event?

All parents want the best for their children, but so many are unaware of early and preventative treatment that their children need. Events like ours not only educate kids on the importance of oral health, but also make parents aware that clinics like ours are available and allow them to bring their children in for care before it’s too late. One of my worst experiences in my pediatric rotation was when a child came in with painful rampant decay and had to undergo treatment during their first visit to the dentist.

Why did you choose to be a SCOPE leader?

I chose to be a SCOPE leader because I truly enjoy helping others. One of the reasons I chose dentistry as a career was so I could provide a service that can profoundly change the lives of others in a positive way. As the special events coordinator, I facilitate large events that help patient populations that routinely are not receiving care and refer them to resources that are appropriate and affordable for the treatment they need. The experiences I am most proud of while I have been in dental school have been at each of these events. I have been a part of CDA Cares, Project Homeless Connect, Give Kids A Smile as well as our smaller SCOPE Health Fairs. These events and experiences have had a huge impact on the way I view the world and have solidified my choice of dentistry as a career.

Can you share some memorable moments from the Give Kids a Smile event?

  • As an organizer of the event, I was constantly moving around performing different jobs. One of those jobs was to relieve some of the volunteers so they could grab lunch and take a break. While I was sitting at the main clinic registration table, I was close to the music we were playing outside the pediatric dentistry clinic. We thought one of the most popular soundtracks for kids would be the new Frozen soundtrack. During “Let It Go,” there was this shy and anxious little girl waiting to go in for her check-up. I had seen her earlier clutching the side of her mother. As soon as she heard the music she started mouthing the words and as the song went on she started to get more comfortable. By halfway into the song, she was out of the chair in the reception area and twirling as she was singing. One of the ortho residents started singing with her and she seemed to be more comfortable around the students.
  • This year we had a balloon artist and face painter at our school for clients after they have had their exam. One little boy came down wearing Spiderman shoes. When asked who his favorite superhero he said, “Spiderman.” I looked at the balloon artist knowing this was going to be challenging because I knew Spiderman’s only accessory was webbing, which is difficult to display with balloons – the balloon artist looked at me and said, “But it’s not impossible.” For the next few minutes he created what looked like webbing on an arm wrap just for the tiny Spiderman fan.
  • One of my favorite events was at the end of the day when I got the chance to look and get a 360 view of the entire event. I was brimming with pride as I saw all of my classmates educating kids and parents as they were decked out in face paint and balloons. Many of them were still in costumes as sugarbugs, toothbrushes, toothpaste and tooth fairies. As nerdy dental students, many of them were dressed in dentistry-themed costumes. As I looked around at all the volunteers, I was so happy that so many of them participated in the fun and had either gotten their face painted or had balloons from the balloon artists.

Kids with balloons

Why is volunteering an important part of dental education?

I feel that volunteering and helping others is a valuable and rewarding experience while we are in dental school. I think most of the students who choose dentistry as a career fall in love with dentistry the moment they visually see the positive impact they make in their patients lives. Many of the patients we see in some of our largest SCOPE events (like Project Homeless Connect) are from populations who have the least access to dentistry. Their dentition is often in dire straights, which presents us with complex cases. These events give dental students the perspective of the different patient populations, and we often are able to make the largest impact on a person by taking them from their hopeless dentition into something that is esthetic and functional so they can improve other aspects of their lives. All of these experiences are extremely rewarding and make us feel that we are making a positive impact on the world.

The Pacific Dugoni volunteers get festive with costumes, balloons and face painting.
The Pacific Dugoni volunteers get festive with costumes, balloons and face painting.

Pacific Dugoni students, faculty and alumni joined more than 1,700 volunteers to provide $1.66 million in charitable dental services during CDA Cares at Pomona on November 21-22, 2014. The CDA Foundation and CDA host the event to provide dental services and oral health education at no charge to Californians who experience barriers to care. Dentists and dental professionals provided fillings, extractions, cleanings, oral health education, and full and partial dentures to 1,861 people during the two-day event.

Pacific Dugoni students at CDA Cares Pomona.
Pacific Dugoni students at CDA Cares Pomona.

A few current Pacific Dugoni students shared reflections on their experiences volunteering at CDA Cares Pomona.

“We delivered a stay plate on #8 on one patient. She just had the extraction done and was not given pain medications. When we were trying on her stay plate, I could tell that she was in pain because she was trying to hold back the tears. Every time we asked how she was doing, she’d still say that she was fine. That was only one of the few patients I saw that day. Some of the patients drove from two hours away just to get care. Experiences like that remind me why I came to dental school. Nothing compares to the smile you see on people’s faces when they look at their new smile in the mirror. Dentistry, for me, is not just about having the best looking cavity preparation or getting A’s in all my classes. It is about providing service to those who are not fortunate enough to have the means to take care of themselves. One can do dentistry to make other people feel confident about themselves. I do dentistry because it makes me feel good, and it warms my heart when I see a patient smile again.”
- Jacqui Uy, DDS 2016

“Dentists working at CDA events are so open to teaching and patients coming in generously provide the opportunity to learn. I love how dynamic this event is because I can move between departments and assist any number of dentists. What strikes me is that most patients have a full-time job and are contributing members of society who just don’t have the means to take care of some basic dental needs. Patients are so grateful to be able to receive this great service, but they’ll never know how much I honestly cherish my experiences and encounters at CDA Cares.”
- Michelle Nguyen, DDS 2016

“It was my first time volunteering for CDA Cares, and now I know why thousands of volunteers wake up at 5 in the morning and spend their entire day helping out. I worked at the denture station for the majority of the time, and it brought me so much joy see to the look on the patients' faces when they glanced in the mirror and saw their new smiles for the first time. I spoke with patients who told me that they started lining up for this event at 3 in the morning. This shows me that there is a community who wants to improve their oral health, but truly lack the means to do so. All of the appreciative patients and generous volunteers have rejuvenated my passion for the career that we chose.”
- Sheynie Vo, DDS 2016

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“I spent most of my time at CDA Cares Pomona working either in the triage area or guiding patients to the different stops for care. The very first group I took in the early morning said they had been in line since before 4:00 a.m. and were excited to get things started. I was so distracted talking with that first group about the event that I missed taking them to their first stop, routing, and had to backtrack to get them there. To me having that happen wasn't so bad, as talking with the people was what I love about CDA Cares. The people come from everywhere and every situation and at this event we do all we can to help them. In my time at this event I must have met and seen hundreds of people all in need of some form of help and this is an opportunity to provide some relief. To do that alongside so many other awesome volunteers makes it easy to say that I made the right decision to get involved.”
- Steve Truman, DDS 2016

“The best part about CDA Cares, for me, is always the patients. One patient needed to have 10 of her teeth extracted and was very nervous during the procedure. Half-way through I saw a tear fall down her cheek and asked her if she was feeling pain and she said she was crying cause she felt so embarrassed about the state of her mouth. I held her hand and told her that we were there to help bring back her smile. Taking a break from academics was just what I needed to refocus my energy. I had been to a few CDA Cares events before, but Pomona meant more to me because it was so close to home. Volunteering there, you could clearly see the need.”
- Rosemary Tran, DDS 2016

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