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Adventurous dental students seek training opportunities in rural — and sometimes forbidding — locations

September 8, 2014

No roads lead into Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S., an outpost on the frozen tundra that clings to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. By Labor Day 2014, residents had already seen the lightest dusting of snow — which typically blankets the dirt roads from October through June.

Dr. Jonathan Oudin '11 with one pediatric patient

Dr. Jonathan Oudin ’11 with one pediatric patient

And yet, the Indian Health Service welcomes hardy dental students seeking an extern opportunity the likes of which they would not experience in any other clime. While remote, cold places with limited Internet and cell phone coverage are a distinct possibility, even more so are the rewards of providing oral health care for the region’s residents, say Drs. Jonathan Oudin ’11 and Kim Self ’09, who devoted three years as public health dentists with the Indian Health Service in Barrow. It all traces back to summer 2008, when Self completed the externship before her final year of dental school — and then promptly returned that December in the dark of the Alaskan winter.

The summer months in Alaska are more hospitable. That’s when fourth-year dental student Josh Morales traveled to Bethel and Hooper Bay, spending several weeks as an extern with the Indian Health Service in July 2014. He worked with a team of 10 rotating dentists and several dental students from the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine.

Bethel, with a population that barely skirts 6,400, is the only city of its size for hundreds of miles. It’s large compared to Hooper Bay. Getting there requires a one-hour jaunt on a single-engine propeller plane. The village has no restaurants, a general store and one facility with running water. With no Wi-Fi and 19 hours of daylight, Morales had plenty of time to fish, kayak and brush up on card-playing skills when he wasn’t working at the clinics.

It was exciting to get up each morning, and not just because the sun had already hovered over the horizon for hours.

“I did more dentistry in that month than I did in all of third year,” says Morales, who wants to pursue pediatric dentistry. He treated approximately 12 children a day as opposed to two patients at the dental school.

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Fourth-year dental student Josh Morales, en route to treat patients in Hooper Bay, Alaska

The experience exposed Morales to the cultural nuances of Native Alaskan Yup’ik culture in tandem with increasing his hand skills.

“The children won’t verbally answer you when you ask a question. Instead, they’ll raise their eyebrows,” Morales says. “You’ll put the sunglasses on them and ask them if something hurts; you’ll look for the normal body signs, but they’ll just raise their eyebrows. You have to learn to look out of your loops, to see if the sunglasses bob up and down.”

Training opportunities with the Indian Health Service aren’t limited to the Last Frontier.

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Fourth-year TAMBCD student Abrefi Asare

Back in the Lower 48, four senior students from Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry spent time at IHS clinics this summer. Britni Batisse and Abrefi Asare worked at the dental clinic in Clinton, Okla., and Christina Dawson and Lindsay Tilger at the Claremore, Okla., location. The students’ trips were arranged through the college’s preceptorship program, so theirs were abbreviated one-week versions of the IHS externships, which can last from a few weeks to several months.

— Jennifer Fuentes

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