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Community Connection: Teamwork reigns supreme


Members of the restorative sciences patient appointment associate team

Front, left to right: Liz Rodriguez, patient services coordinator; and Mary Young, patient appointment associate. Back, left to right: Cristina Rivera, PAA; Cassie Grooms, PAA; Ida Vernon, PSC; and Shanjula Harris, PAA.

For this group of patient appointment associates, a day's work is all the preparation they need to gear up for annual volunteer effort

It’s calm on the second floor restorative sciences wing at the moment. That’s because it’s Wednesday, the only day the department’s patient appointment associates are not assisting morning patients. 

In a few hours, the scene will change completely. Every other weekday, 200 patients stream through the college’s doors and into the restorative sciences waiting area for 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. appointments. The six-member team coordinates appointments for 103 students, who each see two patients a day.

It’s perfect training for the yearly Dallas Mayor’s Back to School Fair, when the group willingly leaves the air conditioned quarters of their desks to work in the August heat at Fair Park. They spend the day alongside public health sciences department faculty and staff, dental hygiene faculty, first-year pediatric dentistry residents, D2s and D3s, University of Texas at Dallas predental students and other Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry staff volunteers.

Between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., the restorative sciences staff volunteers register patients and distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste; some even translate in Spanish. By the day’s end, they typically register and welcome more than 1,000 school children.

Richard Cardenas, administrative coordinator for public health sciences, the department in charge of TAMHSC-BCD’s involvement at the school fair, says what strikes him most is the willingness of the restorative sciences volunteers. This August was no exception.

“They are so flexible, they work so well as a team,” recalls Cardenas the day after this year’s fair. “It’s on their calendar.”

The group’s can-do attitude may indicate something deeper: a strong team dynamic gleaned from coordinating dental care for hundreds of patients every workday — a challenging, yet rewarding experience, to say the least.

On-the-job training

When asked why they like to volunteer, the patient appointment team members — some sitting in their chairs, others leaning against their desks — unanimously cheer, “It’s fun!” The question brings up recollections of visits from Dallas Mavericks mascot Champ the Horse, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and moments spent observing student dentists with school children. The team’s involvement goes back so far, they use births of children, nieces and nephews as a frame of reference for how long they’ve been participating in the event.

When foot traffic swells at the health fairs, and families line up outside the college’s fluoride varnish and screening stations, these women rely on their teamwork, much like they do on a daily basis.

"We all feel each other's vibes, we really know each other."

— Mary Young, patient appointment associate

“You have to work together when you go on these things,” says Liz Rodriguez, patient services coordinator, who has been at the college for 15 years.

“With this job, you have to be good with pressure,” Rodriguez continues. “It gets really loud over here,” she says, gesturing to the waiting area adjacent to their desks. “And you’re on the phone, or talking with patients, or answering students and teachers.” All the noise can become overwhelming.

When asked what gets them through those hectic moments or when they’re off campus volunteering, patient appointment associate of three years Mary Young says it’s because, “We all feel each other’s vibes; we really know each other.”

“We also roll our eyes at each other,” Ida Vernon, patient services coordinator and an 11-year department veteran, jokingly adds.

Cassie Grooms, who has been a patient appointment associate in the department for seven years, continues the banter, stating that she “just stays to herself,” clearly in jest.

For Shanjula Harris, with the group for one year, the secret behind their cohesiveness is simple.

“We listen to each other,” Harris says. Gaining exposure to a broad range of people also helps the group’s volunteer efforts.

“You get used to it, because you know how to act,” Harris says. “We see diversity here, so when we go out in the public, we accept that diversity.” 

‘It humbles me’'

If you ask Cristina Rivera, who has worked as a patient appointment associate in restorative sciences for 11 years, what motivates her to volunteer with her colleagues, she’ll be happy to tell you it’s watching the student dentists interact with the school kids. Sometimes this involves substantial coaching and reassuring the child that no extractions will be involved with the visit.

“They take their time to let them know it’s just like a toothbrush,” Rivera says of the dental students’ descriptions of the fluoride varnish applicators. She even grabs her cell phone to reveal a photo of one student dentist crouched over the concrete, reassuring a little boy sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up hesitantly at him.

Rodriguez’s favorite moments are when she translates to the children in Spanish and gets to see their reactions.

“These kids, they’re so excited for every little thing,” she says. “It humbles me.”

Unexpected benefits

The restorative sciences volunteers are not alone in their service — a handful of staff members from other departments seize this opportunity, including Lisa Pradarits, patient services assistant I in dental hygiene, and Colleen West and Kela Lewis, both administrative assistants in the Department of Research & Graduate Studies, to name a few.

Lewis, who has volunteered at the Mayor’s Back to School Fair for four years and volunteers with her family during the holidays, says she was elated to learn the college participated in the event.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” Lewis says. “I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction from representing TAMHSC and interacting with the community."

While teamwork comes naturally for the restorative sciences group, many of whom have worked together for more than 10 years, volunteering at these events is something that could help every department, Young says.

“For people who don’t do it, it would be great not just for experience,” Young says, “but also to learn to work together as a team.”