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IHS Dental Professionals —
Careers of Service and Caring
Indian Health Service (IHS) dentist Mary Beth Johnson, DDS, lives an hour and a half from the nearest grocery store. Her home on the Hopi reservation in Arizona has “that middle of nowhere feeling,” she says. “You can go for 20 miles and not see anyone.” While Michael Cadieux, DDS, says his Gallup, New Mexico home on the Navajo reservation isn't quite that remote, his previous assignment in Crown Point, New Mexico, was “an hour from nowhere and two hours from everywhere.”
But for Cadieux and Johnson, and other IHS Division of Oral Health professionals who work in locations off the beaten path, conveniences like nearby stores and pizza delivery in 15 minutes just aren't as important to them in the bigger scheme of things.
The bigger scheme is public health, they say, and caring for the needs of underserved communities. Rewards and satisfaction often come in the form of little things that mean so much. A smiling child who used to be fearful and cried at her dental appointment; a woman talking and laughing openly, proud of her own smile, but who once was so ashamed of her decayed and missing teeth that she hid her mouth behind her hand. There are larger successes, too, and great feelings of professional accomplishment gained from seeing the results of your work in the statistics, watching dental disease rates in your community drop over time, or seeing fewer children with caries.
At the end of the day, the satisfaction IHS dental professionals receive from helping an appreciative population is what's really important to them — and it's what public health is all about.
“I feel like I'm doing something that's truly helping a lot of people, touching a lot of lives. I don't know if I'd get that kind of satisfaction doing anything besides public health,” says CDR Johnson, a US Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Officer, and Chief of the Dental Program at the Hopi Health Care Center in Polacca, Arizona. “I love what I do, and it's a great feeling to be helping people who otherwise wouldn't get help.”
The focus of public health on whole communities means doing more for many, as much as you can for as many people as you can, one step at a time. Though you treat individuals, your eye is always on the big picture – the population as a whole, the culture, and the future of the community.
“My job is so much more than just working at a dental clinic,” says LT Torrey Darkenwald, an IHS Dental Hygienist at the Northern Cheyenne Service Unit in Lame Deer, Montana. “I'm involved in community activities, grant writing and prevention programs. Our largest program is doing sealants, fluoride treatments and oral health education for kids in kindergarten through grade 12. We also distribute Xylitol gum to Head Start kids, and work with the local water utility on fluoridation. It's always something new, and I don't really have a ‘typical day.'”
IHS Fast Facts
CDR Cadieux, Navajo Area Dental Director in Window Rock, Arizona, explains that the Native American population has much higher rates of dental disease than the average US population. In terms of treating a community, the Navajo have some of the highest rates of dental and periodontal disease in the country, he says.
“The oral health problems of the community are large, and thus the solutions have to be broader and come from a group endeavor. IHS is a group of people committed to community health. As such, you can add more depth and strength to the purpose, and that equals much more than one person can give to their local neighborhood.”
For LT Jane Bleuel, DMD, Staff Dentist at Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation in Tuba City, Arizona, her family's emphasis on service to community led her to investigate IHS careers. Impressed with the retirement and loan repayment benefits of the Commission Corps career path, she signed up for a new career adventure.
“I'd been in Kentucky my whole life, and I wanted to do something different, see different places,” says LT Bleuel, who has been with IHS for three years. “After a great experience in a six-week externship with IHS, I was hooked. I have to say I never would have dreamed of some of the experiences I've had, learning about the Navajo and Hopi cultures, and living in amazing, beautiful places that are so different from Kentucky.”
CDR Cadieux, in his 15th year working with the Navajo, believes in the adage, “You reap what you sow.” Working in public health, he says, gives him the chance to have a bigger harvest.
“We're impacting the health and welfare of a sovereign nation. I like being able to do that without having all the small business concerns of running a private practice, like who's paying the electric bill, or wondering if I have enough money to retire,” he says.
“The beauty of living and serving with a grateful Tribe in such a picturesque area like the Four Corners of the Southwest only convinces me more that I have a unique and completely fulfilling public service position as a Commissioned Officer in the USPHS. I don't think I could ask for more reward than this.”
Along with the rewards of a public health career comes the perception of making personal sacrifices. Yet IHS dentists and hygienists feel they're not making sacrifices at all. They balance their lives and careers with many other factors.
Says LT Bleuel, who is moving soon to the Alaska Native Medical Center: “For me, what's important is that I make enough money that I can do what I want to do. I have a job that I love, I make a good living, I live in exciting places and do new things. Overall, I'm extremely happy with my IHS career choice and wouldn't trade it for anything.”
The adventure of working within different cultures steeped in tradition and mystique is also appealing to IHS professionals. When CDR Cadieux tells people what he does for a living, they are fascinated, he says.
“They always want to pull up a chair and start asking me questions. ‘What's it like? Is it as pretty out there as they say? I hear great things about working with Native peoples. Did you learn the language?' It's a fantastic experience, the area is beautiful and yes, I've learned the language. I came here to give and ended up receiving much more than I could ever give.”
CDR Johnson, though separated from family in Ohio, feels she has become part of a different family on the Hopi reservation. Cultural activities have become important, and she has attended weddings, funerals, baby namings and initiation ceremonies. Talking about her “home away from home,” she says it all comes down to perspective.
“A lot of people think the Hopi reservation is really remote, but the Hopis call it the Center of the Universe,” she says. “Living on a reservation isn't for everyone, but it sure works for me. I can feel the wind in my hair. I can let the dog run loose, go horseback riding, not fight traffic when I drive to work. And our patients are such great people. I love what I do, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
Are you ready for the adventure and satisfaction of a dental public health career with IHS?
For more information about IHS Division of Oral Health, visit: www.dentist.ihs.gov
Point of Contact:
Timothy L. Lozon, DDS
1-800-IHS-DENT (447-3368) or 301-443-0029 (direct)