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Washington State Dental Association

DR. MARY JENNINGS: Celebrating Diversity

 This month’s magazine celebrates diversity. Washington State has enjoyed such a diverse population that many of us forget that there are beautiful stories to tell and serious problems to solve.

Judging from my looks, one would never think I am a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation. Levi Colbert, the civil chief of the Chickasaws at our time of removal on the Trail of Tears, was my four times great grandfather. The Chickasaws are known as “Unconquered and Unconquerable” and that is how I was raised.

Like many of you, I was also raised to give back.

My first job out of dental school was on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. I loved them and they loved me right back. I learned how to pull teeth on people that I swear had the hardest and thickest bones in the world. I found that the “universal” shades of composite are really not quite so universal. Most of my patients were quiet and so kind to the brand new dentist who was trying her hardest to serve them well.

It was kind of my assistant, Irma, to invite me to her all day Navajo (Dineh) house blessing potluck. Each room was blessed and sage smoked by specialist elders. The prayers were lengthy and solemn. The party was great!

I felt honored to be included.

The hospital where we worked was also blessed with a full day of drumming, praying and singing each year. There was the day we shared the thin bluish black piki bread brought back from the Hopi Maidenhood Ceremony. Then, the day they sang me the song of the Black Mountain.

There were not so good days. Learning that our nine-year-old patient had died and that alcohol related car accidents are still one of the leading causes of Native American children’s deaths. Seeing clinically, that the Pima Indian’s bodies have not adapted well to our modern diets. They have the world’s highest incidence of type 2 diabetes. The Pima’s diabetes has been studied by the National Institute of Health since 1963. 

I got teary when I pulled 28 mobile teeth from a diabetic 23 year-old woman. Her cheeks collapsed like an old person’s. I clutched the chair and swore like Scarlett O’ Hara that, “as God as my witness, I will make you the best denture ever,” and I did.

But my life and stories literally pale in comparison to dentists who have actually grown up in diverse communities.

I am fortunate to know George Blue Spruce, the founder of the Society of American Indian Dentists, the first Native American dentist and a former Assistant Surgeon General. He crossed strong cultural lines when he left the Laguna/San Juan Pueblos on a bus to go to college in 1949. He recalls his first Thanksgiving alone in his book Searching for My Destiny. “If there was such a thing as dying from homesickness and loneliness, I would have died.” He spent that holiday at the movies trying to cope. He was physically and culturally isolated. No one thought to notice. 

Thinking to notice. That may be the bottom line in diversity. Noticing that everyone grows up in different styles of households and, if it’s not pathological, it’s all right! Noticing that perfectly capable people may need a hand up, especially if their families did not pave the way for them.

I suppose that after noticing comes realization. Realizing that no one who earned the right to join a college should ever live there in isolation. They should belong. The same applies to their belonging to a Dental Association. Realizing that both dental school and solo practice are inherently self centered experiences so it is easy to miss someone’s struggles or to not have the insight to realize that the playing field may not be completely level.

We must also realize that cultural sensitivity is at an all time high in our nation. That brings a deeper dimension to dental issues. The Pew Charitable Trusts is studying how native people on reservations feel about native versus non-native providers. Not surprisingly, their data supports Pew’s inclusive concept of Native American midlevel providers serving their own tribal members. Last year, the National Congress of American Indian’s passed a bill supporting midlevel providers. All while we were not particularly noticing.

Everyone has a story to tell. I am delighted that WSDA has noticed, and we have a conduit to get these stories out through our News and blogs. We hope to delight in our dentist’s successes and gain insight to each community’s specific problems. We want to actively work with all dentists who are engaged in their communities to help solve problems with oral health, advocacy and access to care. Once united, informed and focused, we are a formidable force to bring better oral health to every community.
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