Service with a Smile

Students volunteer for Dentistry Cares Day
By Anna Claire Conrad • Photo by Steve Wood
Photo of Michael MacWilliam and Katherine Bell
Students volunteer for Dentistry Cares Day
By Anna Claire Conrad • Photo by Steve Wood

It’s tough to say who was smiling more during UAB Dentistry Cares Day—the approximately 400 low-income, homeless, and underserved patients who received much-needed care, or the untiring team of volunteers who provided it.

In its second year, the all-day event organized by the UAB School of Dentistry provided free basic oral care, including cleanings, extractions, and fillings, on campus and at locations throughout the Birmingham area. The prospect of seeing so many patients in a single day might sound daunting, but UAB dental students eagerly joined more than 500 faculty, staff, local dentists, and other community partners to make everything run smoothly.

Katherine Bell (pictured above, at right), a third-year student from Montgomery, was responsible for developing a system to receive and coordinate requests for radiographs from dentists performing the patient screenings. She says it was exciting “to have the opportunity to serve the community with the skills we have learned and refined in school.” Other dental students greeted and seated patients, disinfected tools, and assisted dentists with screenings. Many third-year students also worked with attending dentists and residents to perform extractions and restorations, including Bell, who assisted a classmate with a restoration after the team completed all of the requested radiographs.

The volunteers treated both adults and children and discussed the importance of oral hygiene with them. Many patients arrived in pain but quickly found relief, Bell says. Patients also received blood pressure checks and oral cancer screenings. “The reality is that there is a great need in this city and the surrounding community,” with many people unable to receive care, she says. By participating in UAB Dentistry Cares Day, “I hope to both improve the oral health of our patients and make a positive difference in their self-confidence.”

Dentistry as Normal

Months of planning lead up to Dentistry Cares Day, and the morning is full of anticipation and excitement. But “once the event begins, it is dentistry as normal,” says Michael MacWilliam (pictured above, at left), a fourth-year dental student from Birmingham. This year, he worked at a partner site—the Woodlawn neighborhood’s Christ Health Center, one of the places where all third- and fourth-year dental students regularly complete clinical rotations. Other community partners included One Roof, Cahaba Valley Health Care, The Foundry, the UAB School of Nursing, Samford University pharmacy students, a dental hygiene school, and local companies, dentists, and health agencies.

At Christ Health Center, senior students “were able to perform extractions, fillings, and cleanings, just the same as the UAB site,” MacWilliam said. But “all four years of students were encouraged to participate in the event. It was great to see the whole school come together and work as a team.”

Extending Outreach

Both Bell and MacWilliam plan to use their dental knowledge and skills to continue serving the community. Calling the Dentistry Cares experience “humbling,” Bell is ready to participate again, and she plans to practice “servant-minded leadership” in her future practice. “By simply having a conversation with a patient and demonstrating our concern through volunteer services, it is possible to change an individual’s perception of oral health,” she says.

MacWilliam, who plans to continue his education in a yearlong residency at UAB, looks forward to the day when he can open his own practice to patients in need. He also wants to encourage other young dentists to participate so that UAB Dentistry Cares Day could evolve into a statewide event.

“Dentists are a huge part of the health-care community who directly interact with patients more often than many other doctors,” MacWilliam says. “Therefore, it is imperative for dental students to be in touch with their community and learn how true outreach can positively impact so many people.”

• Learn more about the UAB School of Dentistry's community outreach efforts, including Dentistry Cares Day.

• Give something and change everything for UAB dentistry students and the communities they serve.

Published April 2015