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 When WSDA News Editor Dr. Mary Jennings found out we were doing a story on dental wünderkind and Hispanic Dental Association President Dr. Tyrone Rodriguez, one of the questions she posed was unexpected — “Ask him what compels him to wear his tall hats” 

It’s true, they make a bold statement — especially here in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re more likely to sport gore-tex than a Stetson — making Rodriguez hard to miss when he walks into a room. He explains that his parents live outside San Antonio in Bulverde, Texas, and the hat is a way for him to carry around a little of them wherever he goes. But it is also an opportunity to be a little different, and it has had a great effect on his youngest and most fearful patients — it relaxes them. He says, “We tell cowboy jokes while we’re taking care of them, and it brings the tension level completely down.”

Rodriguez has an easy, genuine smile and a jovial, enthusiastic demeanor, so it’s hard to imagine anyone tense around him. But truth be told, he doesn’t need the hat to get noticed. 

Throughout his life, Rodriguez has been a standout: in school, as a researcher, as a teacher, and finally, as a dentist. He’s a maverick go-getter who started not one, but two chapters of the Hispanic Dental Association, because he saw the need to champion his people and culture. Because of the inherent cultural differences, he knew that Hispanics needed to find their voice in dentistry, and he knew it had to be done differently, embracing all Hispanic dental professionals — not just dentists — because of their connection to la familia.

He explains, “Hispanics have a bond in common — we share a culture, we have a different perspective about how we see our community, and what we value. Both the Houston and San Antonio chapters of The Hispanic Dental Association were built around the concept of a dental home, with inclusivity at its heart. We have elected members and officers who are hygienists, dentists, and assistants. We don’t see each other as the letters behind our names, we see ourselves as sharing a commonality and the greater goal of helping our community.” But Rodriguez knows that it’s important to look beyond borders to be aware of what is happening nationally and internationally. He travels abroad for dental missions in Central America, the Caribbean, and even Africa. On the national scene, he was the only dentist invited to address the Affordable Care Act Committee during the National Hispanic Medical Association’s presentation on the ACA, and recently he was invited by Dr. Gerry Glickman, Past Chair of American Dental Education Association, to participate in a debate hosted by the Pew Charitable Trust debating a former Secretary of Health over dental workforce models. Without, as Rodriguez noted with a smile, “Discussion about the big elephant in the room.”

Immersed in the culture
So, how did this whip-smart champion find his way to Washington state? Born in Greenwich, Conn., Rodriguez was just two years old when his parents shipped him back to their native Colombia, South America to live with relatives so that they could focus on achieving the American Dream. He recounts, “My mother was 16 and I was a handful — full of energy! It was a blessing in disguise — it allowed me to grow up, immerse myself in the culture, and perfect my Spanish.” When he was in 4th grade, he reunited with his parents, whose catering business took them all around the country until he was in high school. By his estimation, they lived in ten different states before he finished high school. All that moving gave him a special courage, and shaped who he is today. He elaborates, “I think that my upbringing — having to meet new people frequently and adapt to new surroundings rapidly — forced me to make choices and lead. There were times that it was tough — my parents weren’t always around, and I had to grow up fairly quickly. I saw that if I didn’t lead myself or my family members there was no one else there to do it.” He thrived — his parents instilled in him the importance of education, and worked to send him to the best schools they could afford, where he excelled in both academics (as a National Merit Semifinalist) and athletics. As far as college was concerned, however, his parents didn’t have the resources, and they made it clear that he would have to pay for it himself. But because he was a gifted athlete — Rodriguez was a former state champion and all-New England wrestler — he was one of the first Hispanic recipients of a college scholarship from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and was able to attend Brown University. He was the first in his family to attend college. 

Tragedy his freshman year
Like any college freshman, Rodriguez was excited to begin his studies. “Brown was an incredibly supportive and diverse environment — in terms of culture, thought, and thinking outside the box. It was amazing to have professors who were Nobel laureates, and to attend school with students from such diverse backgrounds.” One of the students in his biology class was the son of James Watson of Watson and Crick, the team that first suggested the double-helix model of DNA structure, Harry Chapen’s and Diana Ross’ daughters attended when he did, as did a prince from Greece. It was a vastly different world than the one he had inhabited. Then, during his freshman year, tragedy struck: his parents, 13 month old brother, and grandmother were involved in a major airline disaster — the crash of Flight 52 over Long Island — 73 perished. Rodriguez explains, “The flight was returning from South America, when it ran out of fuel over Long Island after its landing had been delayed due to severe winter weather. Half of the passengers died, including my grandmother, who was flying for the first time in her life.” Rodriguez’ father and brother suffered multiple injuries, and his mother was in a coma for several weeks and ended up staying in the hospital for months, requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries. It was during that time that Rodriguez met neurologists and a neurosurgeon, and because of that connection first became interested in getting his degree at Brown in neuroscience. 

Baylor and beyond
Upon graduation from Brown, Rodriguez took a position at Baylor College of Medicine, doing research in molecular physiology and biophysics. While the work was satisfying, then-governor of Texas, Anne Richards started a program that allowed people with an interest in math or science an opportunity to eliminate 20 percent of their student loan debt for each year teaching in the public school system. Rodriguez jumped at the opportunity, saying, “Being a school teacher allowed me to stay current, use my math and science skills, coach wrestling, start a family, settle down, and figure out what I wanted to do next, all while retiring my debt.” After three years, the culture in the classroom changed from open discussion and free thinking to a focus on standardized test scores. The change dulled Rodriguez’ interest in teaching, and he began to look at what his friends were doing — some were dentists, others physicians. The physicians seemed stressed, worried about changes in the way medical practices were managed and lack of autonomy, the opposite of what his dentist friends were experiencing, but he knew nothing about dentistry. So, like any overachiever, he took the DAT on his own, and later hand-delivered his scores to UT Houston Dental School. He enlisted their help getting into dental school, eventually choosing UT Houston. He wasn’t the traditional dental student just out of college — he was of a different mindset, but it worked to his advantage — allowing him to excel, but have a more holistic, altruistic approach to education. “I wanted to make things better and get an education,” he explains. It was that desire to make things better that led Rodriguez to become student body president at University of Texas Health Science Center, serving almost 20,000 health professional students, and to found the Greater Houston Hispanic Dental Association — taking a leadership role even as a student. “Students have great power when it comes to molding a profession,” he says, “They just don’t know it.” Later, during his pediatric dentistry residency, Rodriguez again rolled up his sleeves and helped found the San Antonio chapter of the HDA— with an eye toward inclusivity that had worked so well in Houston. 

Making inclusion work on a broader scale through ongoing partnerships
While he’s always appreciated the ADA, Rodriguez notes that the profession as a whole tends to be homogenous, and can leave minority members feeling disenfranchised, saying “If you look at the acceptance rates and the membership numbers it’s rarely a true reflection of the communities we live in and that can be frustrating. That’s why so many of us pour our energy into our cultural Associations — there are often too many limitations within the ADA’s structure and governance.” In an effort to forge even stronger alliances, Rodriguez and his colleagues over at the National Dental Association (NDA) and the Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID) entered into a partnership, combining their annual meetings together for the first time last year to create awareness at the Multicultural Oral Health Summit. It was a historic meeting, and one that all three groups are eager to reprise — as each group represents a growing population in the country with needs as diverse as their membership. Rodriguez says, “Let’s face it, we represent big communities — 52 million in the Hispanic community alone — one of six living in the U.S. today identify as Hispanic, and we need to determine the needs of all of our minority communities when it comes to oral health. We must have providers who are culturally sensitive, who understand that research and data are necessary to evaluate distinct, cultural needs — for the health of our profession and that of our communities.”

The Hispanic perspective
But what is it that is so specific to the Hispanic Culture? “Like so many, the Hispanic community is centered in family,” says Rodriguez. “But in many other cultures, once you reach a certain age, it is time to leave the nest. In the Hispanic culture, the tendency is the opposite — the nest just gets bigger.” That means that when a patient from a Hispanic family is scheduled, if there is any uncertainty or fear about the appointment, the entire family will show up. Not just the mother and father of the patient, but aunts, uncles and grandparents, and other extended relatives — toda la familia — will be present at the practice to face the challenge. Rodriguez also cites the belief by some in the Hispanic community of old wives tales about oral health that persist — “There was a joint study by Proctor & Gamble and the Hispanic Dental Association Foundation which indicated that some Hispanics still believed that cavities could simply be brushed away, and other cultural misconceptions. So the Hispanic dental professional has different needs for both the patient and professional communities.” But the nuances between cultural factions can be hard to discern, and Rodriguez serves as a clearinghouse of information for dental colleagues trying to navigate the cultural waters. “A lot of friends of mine who aren’t Hispanic call me for clarity,” he says, “And I value them as providers because they are taking the time to try and serve their patient populations more effectively. We try to problem solve because my goal is to get as many folks in the Hispanic community into a dental office — it doesn’t have to be mine. I just want them to be healthy, and not have to suffer the ill effects and consequences of poor oral health. Especially Hispanics, who are disproportionately impacted by diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and their links to oral health.” In the dental profession, other nuances exist — Rodriguez continues, “Many of the Hispanic dental professionals don’t appreciate higher levels of organized dentistry.” Rodriguez sees it as his mission to change that, by proselytizing that legislation enacted by well intentioned, but misinformed lawmakers can inadvertently affect dentistry adversely. He says, “When I tell people if they’re not involved in grassroots dentistry, others will make decisions for them, they often see the value in joining. I feel like they wouldn’t have joined without my recruitment efforts, and helping them to understand that membership and being involved in organized dentistry is something that is essential and vital to the preservation of our profession.”

Goals for the future
“I’ve always valued the role and importance of organized dentistry, no matter what association I’ve been a member of, and I am a member of many,” Rodriguez says. And while he credits an efficient hierarchy and chain of command at HDA as one of the reasons for his fast ascent to the presidency from thirteen years ago when he was the first national student trustee, he’s gotten where he is today because of his commitment, drive and energy — not only to the Hispanic community, but to the broader dental community as well. “There is a generational gap between the main body of the impacted or affected membership and the leadership, a disconnect. I’d like to help change that. Membership is an important aspect of organized dentistry because it creates solidarity and adaptability; good membership allows the leadership to make the right choices of the proximity to the front lines.” Additionally, Rodriguez sees how Washington’s progressive dental practice act empowers additional members of the workforce to care for the underserved, while safeguarding the doctor-patient relationship. Rodriguez feels so passionately about access to care and utilization of care that he created the acronym S.E.A.L. (Service, Education, Advocacy and Leadership) for the HDA. With his drive and commitment, we’re sure he will accomplish all of his goals and many others — we congratulate and applaud you, Dr. Rodriguez! 


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