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Vital Signs

Med student cuts her teeth on community outreach

Lisa Norlander's own teeth gleam as she explains how she became interested in dental health during college. "About a third of our school went down to . . . Mexico during spring break every year. We were divided into different teams. . . . I was fortunate to be on the medical-dental team."

About 20 undergraduates, continues Norlander—plus doctors, nurses, dentists, and dental hygienists—would travel around and set up one-day clinics. "The thing for me that was most formative was working with the dentists. The first patient we had was a woman who had hardly any teeth. Most of her teeth had rotted down to the gum line, and what she did have left in her mouth was so brittle that you could barely touch it—it would just shatter. It kind of opened my eyes to the oral health needs around the world."

Norlander decided to go into medicine rather than dentistry and is now a second-year medical student at DMS. But she hasn't abandoned the mission that absorbed her in college. In fact, she applied for a grant to develop an oral health education project in the Upper Valley. Her proposal was funded by the Schweitzer Fellows Program, which underwrites student projects that address unmet health needs. "When I heard about the Schweitzer Program," Norlander says, "I felt that doing an oral health project

would be a way that I could integrate my interest in oral health with my medical education."

On a recent evening, she is working with eight volunteers she's recruited for the project. Several other medical students, plus some undergraduates and two health-care professionals, have assembled for the first of two training sessions. After a brief introduction, Norlander turns the forum over to Russell Jones, M.D., a family physician from New London, N.H., who talks about tooth decay, its prevention, and the logistics of community outreach.

The group's second session will be more hands-on; they'll practice proper brushing and flossing techniques using a model of a mouth and gums and learn about various oral complications. Upon completion of their training, the volunteers will become emissaries in behalf of oral health—visiting area shelters and social service agencies to dispense information and provide resources on dental health.

In addition to Jones, Norlander is also being advised by a retired dentist, Robert Keene, D.M.D., who describes himself as a "technical resource and handholder." Keene will provide the hands-on part of the training, drawing on his 40-plus years in practice in Hanover as well as his work in underdeveloped nations.

Phase: Training volunteers is only the first phase of Norlander's plan. When she begins her clinical rotations in July, she'll have much less time to devote to the project. So she and her mentors are planning to also produce an instructional DVD that can be left with the target organizations. That way, the education can continue without an ongoing need to recruit and train volunteers. According to Keene, it will include such information as a recipe for inexpensive homemade toothpaste.

Upper Valley residents who may not have seen a dentist in years will, of course, benefit from Norlander's efforts. But Jones says the students who volunteer will also benefit from "a chance to see what impact physicians can have . . . in the community." And, he adds, "it also helps the medical community in general. Seeing volunteer students providing education can do a lot to make the public see that we are, indeed, real people."

Joyce F. Wagner

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