I have always been intrigued by the scientific workings of the natural world. A biology major at SDSU, I spent almost two years helping to investigate the muscle function of flies, extensively cataloging physical characteristics—bristles, curly wings, eye shape—looking for mutations that would point us to the “flight gene.” The effects only last a few minutes when a fly is put under CO2, and I loved working under time pressure with great precision and efficiency. Nevertheless, gearing up for dental school and a long career helping people every day, the biology lab did not do much to satisfy my desire for contact with people.
“Why don’t you join the Flying Samaritans? You’d love it, and we need interpreters in our Tijuana clinic.” I looked incredulously at my friend, Mary. Hadn’t I just told her how busy I was with research and getting ready to graduate? But Mary persisted. A month later, translating for families in the busy clinic across the border in Mexico, I realized my friend was right. Dentistry, I discovered, combines my passion for scientific advancement with my love for hands-on work and my most keen desire to bear witness to the improvement that I labor to make in the lives of others as a result of direct relationships.
Volunteering in Tijuana gave me a glimpse of the sheer joy, day after day, that awaits me with a career in Dentistry. Translating for Dr. Silva, I had the enormous privilege of explaining procedures, reassuring nervous families, and providing general dental education. One 10-year-old boy with two broken molars told me about a horrific prior dental experience. Reassuring him, I felt grateful for my Spanish in his language, convincing him that he had nothing to fear with us. It was not until the Flying Samaritans that I fully appreciated the great need for dentists like myself who speak Spanish and English as native languages, especially anywhere near the US southern border, where my opportunities for contributing to the oral health needs of the underserved abound.
After college, I began interpreting at UCSD’s student-run dental clinic. That was how I met Andrea, a senior living on a fixed income. Her teeth were beyond repair without the means to afford dental care. After three weeks of waiting and adjustments, she was overwhelmed with gratitude and hugs for each of us at her final denture fitting. Even after she left, she returned to say thank you. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she burst into laughter, explaining that she had been so excited that her hands were shaking uncontrollably when she applied her lipstick. We laughed as I pointed out that even zig-zagging red lipstick couldn’t detract from her beautiful smile.
There is an inexplicable feeling of fulfillment in seeing patients’ happiness after healing/restorative dental work. The needs are especially urgent in underserved communities for whom Spanish is increasingly the first and often only language the patient speaks. As a volunteer assistant in a low-cost emergency clinic, I help those afraid or unable to see a dentist find relief from their pain. I have been particularly inspired by the work of Dr. XXXX, a Spanish-English bilingual dentist whose empathetic care reaches across cultures. Splitting her time between the free clinics, her office, and international relief work, her impact stretches across the globe, and she brings what she learns to inspire many pre-dental students. For my part, backpacking across Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, I came to appreciate and think critically about my Mexican origins, every dish, drink, and dessert—the toll on my enamel erosion, etc.
Another particular highlight was the Thousand Smiles Project, helping with activities for oral hygiene education. I look forward to decades to come searching for creative ways to connect dentistry and preventive care while also learning about cultures and traditions. Working alongside dentists in underserved communities ignited and confirmed my interest in dentistry. There is no better feeling than to relieve a patient's pain and bear witness to their joyful smile. I look forward to changing lives and improving futures by giving my all locally and globally. Concerning programs oriented towards those of the underserved who speak primarily Spanish, I look forward to assuming positions of increasing responsibility to maximize my contribution.
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