Doing More Than Cleaning Teeth

By Kathleen A. Barrows
Photos by Jon Draper

Dental hygiene alumni are taking on leadership roles, teaching, mentoring and expanding the definition of what it means to be a dental hygienist.

“Being a dental hygienist is not just about cleaning teeth,” asserted Hani Mohsenzadeh DH ’09 in a recent article featuring male dental hygienists in the American Dental Hygienists’ Association’s Access magazine. His statement sums up well the University’s unique accelerated program in dental hygiene. That and the word “prevention,” as the director of Pacific’s dental hygiene program Deborah Horlak, RDH, states, “Preventing  disease from occurring is better than just healing a problem.”

The program—a partnership between the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry and the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences division of the University—was the first 36-month program leading to a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene in the United States. The general education courses, completed at Pacific’s Stockton campus or through transfer equivalents from other schools, focus on providing a strong science background as well as the humanities necessary for dental hygiene and clinical practice. The dental hygiene professional courses, which begin every January, are offered through the Dugoni School of Dentistry in the dental hygiene facility on the main campus.

Ours is the first 36-month program leading to a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene in the United States

There have been six graduating classes since the program’s inception. We feature here three graduates of the program—Kimberly Senise DH ’06, COP ’89, Larisa Figueroa DH ’07 and Hani Mohsenzadeh DH ’09—who exemplify the Dugoni spirit and tradition. All are not only what Horlak calls “terrific students and wonderful people” but also dental hygiene alumni who are taking on leadership roles in the Alumni Association, teaching and mentoring and expanding the definition of what it means to be a dental hygienist.

Kimberly Senise DH ’06

Dentistry and the dental school go a long way back for Kimberly Senise DH ‘06.  Her father, Dr. F. Paul Senise ’65, past president and former, long-standing secretary of the Alumni Association, and Medallion of Distinction recipient; her twin sister, Dr. Kris Senise Cameron ’98; and her brother-in-law, Dr. Paul Cameron ’95, all graduated from the dental school. Now, as a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors, this member of the second graduating dental hygiene class is continuing the tradition.

Kim is the first and only dental hygiene alumnus on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors

After 12 years of working in the high technology field, Senise returned to Pacific, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in 1989, to study dental hygiene. A memory that stays with her is seeing how the demeanor of an AEGD clinic patient with two missing front teeth completely changed with a partial. “I know that the phrase ‘having a healthy smile’ sounds elementary,” the former class president says, “but it’s true.”

The dental hygienist now works four days a week at multiple practices, including one day in her sister’s and brother-in-law’s practice in Marin County—which gives her the opportunity to “learn a little bit from everybody.”  But she envisions becoming involved in education or practice management consulting in the future.

As the first and only dental hygiene alumnus on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, Senise works to establish and maintain a relationship with dental hygiene students and graduates and to educate them about the benefits of becoming Alumni Association members. It’s not easy. There are only about 140 graduates from the hygiene program so far.  It’s a trek from Stockton to San Francisco, and the dental hygiene program students, in addition to being general younger than other alumni, have tough economic times to face. It’s also not easy to get hygiene alumni interested in an association dominated by dentists. “It’s a constant battle,” she says. “Every year I’m trying something new to draw people in.”  With Senise’s dedication, we’re sure she will.

Larisa Figueroa DH ’07

Stemming from an early admiration of her periodontist, Figueroa began her career working at a dental office as a high school student. The dentists she worked with recognized soon her passion for dental hygiene, accommodating her schedule so that she could take her early college coursework while continuing to work a part-time schedule at their office. “I’ve always been fascinated by the preventative aspects of dentistry and helping before the problems start,” Figueroa says.

Today, she works as a dental hygienist in the practice of Dr. Louis Dang ’00 in West Sacramento, but her education in the dental hygiene program has also inspired her to do much more. The rotations she went through as part of the program, especially screening children in low-income areas, sparked her interest in prevention and working in the community. “I’d see those decayed teeth,” she says, “realize the parents’ lack of knowledge about dental care, and wonder ‘why aren’t we doing something about this?’”

Following her graduation from the dental hygiene program, Figueroa received her master’s degree in public health from University of California, Davis. She now teaches head and neck anatomy at Carrington College (formerly Western Career College) in Sacramento and supervises activity in a community oral health class. When she’s not working, she takes continuing education classes at the dental school and through her local dental hygiene component.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the preventative aspects of dentistry and helping before the problems start.” –LarissaFigueroa

Though she recognizes the financial challenges of dental professionals in these difficult economic times, she encourages other dental hygiene alumni to join the association. “It’s a way of staying connected to the field and to a wonderful school that is always at the cutting-edge and advancing education,” she adds. “Plus, networking is fun.” But most importantly for Figueroa, “I hope I can be a mentor for someone and provide the same type of guidance and support that I received at Pacific and the dental school.”

Hani Mohsenzadeh DH ’09

Like Senise, Hani Mohsenzadeh DH ’09 was drawn to dental hygiene through family ties. The Iranian immigrant, who came to the U.S. speaking very little English, shadowed his sister, Dr. Maryam  Mohsenzadeh, in her Los Angeles dental office and found his calling.

In the dental hygiene program, where he was the only male in his class, he immersed himself in many aspects of dental prevention. A recipient of the Dental Hygiene Student Award from the American Association of Public Health Dentistry and the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation, Mohsenzadeh collaborated in a research study on the hidden health hazards of the hookah, a popular tobacco pipe in the Middle East. With assistance from the Pacific Fund, the results were disseminated at a session of the California Dental Hygienists’ Association in 2009.

Mohsenzadeh collaborated in a research study on the hidden health hazards of the hookah.

Since his graduation, Mohsenzadeh volunteers time at the dental school on Mondays as an instructor in the Department of Dental Practice, working with first-year students in periodontics. He floats around the clinic, doing everything from helping the students with scalers and curettes to explaining the preventative aspects of perio. “I have to keep telling them I’m not a doctor,” he admits. He sees his recent graduation as a plus.  “I’m still fresh, so I’m trying to teach them the way I learned.”

Mohsenzadeh’s teaching experience has further motivated him to become a dental educator as well as a dentist. But right now, he’s primarily excited about two new projects. He hopes to help facilitate the creation of continuing education classes taught by dental school professors for international dentists—an idea that came from his recent discussions with dental school professionals in Iran, Dubai and Bahrain. And, he is now working 80% of his time as a dental hygienist in the La Clinica de la Raza in Oakland, where Alumni Association President Ariane Terlet ’86 serves as the dental director. “I feel so good inside,” he adds, “providing care for the people in need.”

Looking to the Future of the Program

The dental hygiene program shares many aspects of the dental school—an experienced and dedicated faculty focused on the students, the Dugoni humanistic philosophy and a program that “becomes like family” according to Horlak, especially with the small classes of only 24 students. It’s also a diverse program, both in terms of ethnicity and geography. But it needs more visibility. Many alumni don’t even know the program exists. “If everyone would recommend one person into the program, we would have a greater pool of applicants,” Horlak suggests.

Beginning with the Class of 2010, the dental hygiene program now has a rotation to the dental school. For two separate weeks, the dental hygiene students come to the San Francisco campus to teach instrumenting skills to dental students, see patients under faculty supervision, observe work in the clinics and see patients under staff supervision at the Union City Dental Care Center. For many dental students, this is the first contact they have with hygiene students and for many of the hygiene students, the first time they’ve been to the San Francisco campus.

Horlak points out that the public doesn’t know much about the role of dental hygienists. “As health care providers, we spend a lot of time with our patients. Hygienists consider the whole person, assess his/her risk for oral disease and explain the different conditions that affect dental health,” she says. And as these three hygiene alumni attest, they grow into leaders, educators, mentors and researchers. In short, they can do much more than clean teeth.

Kathleen A. Barrows, an East Bay freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Contact Point.