By Jennifer Langam
“Our purpose is to help people lead healthy lives,” says Dean Nader A. Nadershahi ’94. For student dentists at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, the almost 900 clinical hours they spend in their second and third years are essential to their education; for the patients they treat, those hours translate to lives touched.
The clinics in San Francisco and Union City, as well as extramural sites, provide approximately 118,000 patient visits per year to 28,000 active patients. Those numbers are impressive, but, as Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Sig Abelson ’66 says, the most important thing students should learn in the dental clinic is that these are all individuals with unique backgrounds, stories, expectations and health needs.
“From the day students arrive at the Dugoni School, we don’t talk about the teeth or the mouth; we talk about the person, about the patient,” says Abelson. “We teach the students about empathetic listening and that the most important thing dentists can do is listen to their patients.”
Around 35% of patients at the Dugoni School have Denti-Cal insurance, so the clinics are a healthcare safety net for people who have almost nowhere else to turn for dental care, given how few practices accept the low-reimbursement insurance. But, the remaining 65% of Dugoni School patients come from all walks of life, from businesswomen and musicians to retired individuals and military veterans. For these and for all patients, quality care is delivered in a highly supervised setting.
This means that students can practice skills essential for connecting with patients, such as using language patients understand, which can be challenging for student dentists, according to Dr. Bruce Peltier, professor of diagnostic sciences.
“They’ve just learned a whole new vocabulary of big words, and they want to use them! Instead, we teach students to show patients things, like pictures, clay models or models of the restorations they’re going to do. In fact, we talk to our students about the importance of teaching patients,” says Peltier.
The goal of their training, Abelson tells students, is not to teach them to become dentists but to become oral health professionals who care for patients.
And in caring for patients in the clinic, those student dentists and supervisors touch the lives of countless patients, often across many years.
Terry Irvin first came to San Francisco in 1968, hitchhiking from Michigan with $25 in his pocket. Irvin briefly returned to Michigan but has otherwise spent almost his entire adult life in the City. He owned a restaurant and then worked in restaurants, food service and catering for the rest of his career.
He heard about the dental school when he joined a union for restaurant workers in the late 1970s and has been coming to the clinic since the early 1980s.
“The clinic has been a godsend. I’ve had lots of difficulties with my mouth, since I was young, and I’m so thankful for the care I’ve received there,” he says.
Our purpose is to help people lead healthy lives
Irvin has seen lots of changes at the clinic through the years, the most obvious of which is the location. “I love the new building,” he says. “The architecture is beautiful and the clinic facilities are so much nicer than in the old building.”
The location change has, however, changed how Irvin gets to his dental care. “I could walk to the old [Sacramento Street] clinic, and I especially loved my springtime appointments, when I could see the flowering plum trees lining the streets in Japantown,” Irvin remembers. “But times change, and now I take the bus for my morning appointment and get off at Fifth and Market and see the whole city coming alive. So, I appreciate that the new location gets me downtown and out of my neighborhood.”
Because of his long association with the clinic, Irvin has also gotten to know the people at dental school as well. Dr. Lisa Itaya ’98, ’00 AEGD, now associate professor of clinical oral health and a group practice leader in the clinic, was once a student and resident at the Dugoni School—and she was Irvin’s dentist in the clinic and now supervises the student dentists who treat him.
“Dr. Itaya has been taking care of my teeth for the last 25 years!” says Irvin. “Now I see her and she always gives me a big hug, and it makes it fun going there, knowing her and all the supervisors in the clinic. The Dugoni School is really family to me.”
“Patients like Terry are our most valued resource at the clinic,” says Itaya. “He is reliable, patient, cooperative and kind. It takes a patient with a certain temperament or personality to embrace being a dental school patient, and Terry has it.”
Itaya adds, “The patients who consider the Dugoni School as their dental home appreciate the energy of the students, the faculty expertise and the quality work they receive for the price they pay. I think they mostly like the fact that students enjoy being their doctors, and they are polite and caring. The students try hard, and I think patients like that.”
Dr. Itaya has been taking care of my teeth for the last 25 years!
Born and raised on the Peninsula, Steve Plante now lives in San Bruno, California. “I love being near the ocean, and I love baseball and football, and this is a great place for that,” he says.
For 20 years, Plante worked for Sears, where one of his health benefits included access to an in-house dentist. But the 2008 economic downturn hit the retail sector hard, and by 2010 Plante had to leave his job—and his long-time dentist.
A friend referred Plante to the dental clinic, and he went there for the first time in 2012 to get some crowns replaced. His student dentist at the time, he remembers, was an international student from India, and he was very impressed with her work and enjoyed getting to know a bit about her.
“Everyone I’ve ever seen at the Dugoni School has been high quality,” Plante says. “They are professional and focused on their careers, and they explain things in a way I can understand.”
In addition to the crown replacements, Plante has had fillings and cleanings at the dental clinic, and he’s now in the process of getting an implant.
Plante has enjoyed finding things in common with his dentists—he has met some who are as passionate about the San Francisco Giants as he is—as well as learning about the different cultures and backgrounds of the students.
“You get to work with them, and I do everything they tell me to do,” Plante says. “And if I leave the clinic and have any questions, I can always call and get someone to answer them.”
Plante now feels a close relationship with the dentists and staff at the dental school. “It’s almost like you’re a part of the family here,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful place.”
Joaninha (known simply by her first name) has lived abroad for most of her life and has worked as a model, a fashion designer, an artist and most recently, a cookbook author. One of the downsides to her early traveling life is that she had almost no preventive dental care during her 20s when she was living in South America. So when she moved back to San Francisco for a time in the 1970s, she went looking for a dentist.
“My boyfriend’s brother worked in the lab at the Pacific dental school and he knew first hand who the best students were,” she recalls now.
Some of the gold foil restorations Joaninha received from the dental school at that time have lasted until quite recently. “They had a good run,” she says, noting that she just turned 70.
Over the years, as she has spent time in the Bay Area in between living in Paris, Kyoto, Taiwan and other global locations, Joaninha has appreciated the team approach at the Dugoni School clinic. “The students are very well supervised, and the students and faculty dentists consult with each other when they need to do complex procedures for me.”
She has memories of several noteworthy dentists at the clinic through the years: one who was particularly good with her dental sensitivities, another who spent extra time helping patients relax with shoulder massage and music and many international students whom she has enjoyed getting to know.
“I come into the clinic with my lavender eye pillow”
“I have such a complicated mouth,” she laughs. “But everyone at the school is very understanding of all my issues and very patient in explaining every recommended procedure and answering my questions.”
Because of her long tenure with the clinic, Joaninha has joked with students and staff that she could teach an extracurricular course on optimal patient care and management.
“I’ve had so much dental work done that I know a lot of the terms,” she says. “I come into the clinic with my lavender eye pillow; I meditate and I relax. I have the reputation of being a very good patient!” She adds, “It is because of the students’ and staffs’ careful guidance regarding preventive home care that my teeth and gums are quite healthy, even with all the dental work.”
Joaninha is not, however, ready to go abroad again yet. Her priority right now is finding a publisher for her new cookbook, which she describes as “a mélange of information on healthy eating and living” based on her global experience. But when she does travel again, it will be with a smile, probably not long after a visit to the dental school.
Jennifer Langham is a contributor to Contact Point and other University of the Pacific publications.