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Strengthening professional ties across Texas

Texas Mission of Mercy Students and practicing dentists, including
D3 B.J. Sams and Adjunct Professor
Dr. Jon Williamson, get the opportunity to
volunteer and build professional
relationships across the state
during Texas Mission of Mercy events.

Photo courtesy Megan Miller

Texas Mission of Mercy events offer student volunteers opportunity to sharpen skills, develop professional relationships

When D4 Josh de Graffenried started volunteering at Texas Mission of Mercy events in spring 2010, he hadn’t yet entered his clinical education, so he worked instead with sterilization and supplies. It was time well spent; instead of sitting passively to the side, de Graffenried used the time for observation.

"In those situations, I saw what a lot of other dentists do and the types of instruments they prefer,” he says.

“The relationships I have built are almost as rewarding
as the satisfaction of spending the day helping patients.”
— Megan Miller, D4

The exposure to different dental techniques was ample. At any given Texas Mission of Mercy event — operated under the Texas Dental Association Smiles Foundation — dozens of dentists show up to volunteer. In all, the mission boasts hundreds of dentists, dental professionals and volunteers who have worked together to provide more than $5 million in charitable dental services over the past 10 years.

De Graffenried, who now treats patients during some of the volunteer weekends, says he’s learned new techniques from supervising dentists, including Dr. Jon Williamson, a Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry adjunct professor who oversees preceptor students at his Cedar Hill, Texas, dental practice. It was at a Texas Mission of Mercy event in Dallas that Williamson issued de Graffenried a memorable challenge.

“Dr. Williamson called me over and said, ‘Josh, I've got a fun case for you. This lady needs a flipper,’” de Graffenried recalls. “I took out four teeth — with a little help from one of the oral surgeons — and delivered her partial denture. It was a lot of fun to do more than just take out teeth, and she was so excited.”

Forming bonds across Texas

Gaining experience in a clinical setting isn’t the only reward reaped by dental students who volunteer at the events. In sprawling high school gymnasiums dotted with portable dental chairs, dentists and student volunteers have plenty of time to forge relationships, considering that through the course of each weekend mission, they work together to provide dental care for hundreds of patients.

“The relationships I have built are almost as rewarding as the satisfaction of spending the day helping patients,” says D4 Megan Miller, who started volunteering with Texas Mission of Mercy in 2007 as a predental student. “It is no surprise that you meet the most kind and hardworking dentists at TMOM events.

“The dentists I have worked with take a vested interest in my clinical success and are always available to mentor and advise me about dentistry or my personal life.”

De Graffenried says that when dental students from the other Texas schools volunteer, they swap stories about the challenges faced in their education. On more than one occasion, de Graffenried has taken on the role of mentor, encouraging predental student volunteers and giving them advice on the dental school application process.

“It's interesting because the TMOM crowd is often the same group of dentists,” de Graffenried says. “You get to know them just by seeing them at these events. It's fun to say that I know dentists from Cedar Hill, Atlanta, Tyler and elsewhere.”

De Graffenried and Miller have built professional relationships with two dentists in particular: Dr. Mike Giesler — an Atlanta, Texas-based dentist whom both students have accompanied on several mission trips to Belize, where they serve on the same dental team — and Williamson, a nine-year veteran of the Texas Mission of Mercy events and member of the Access Committee for the TDA Smiles Foundation.

Building confidence and professional networks

During Williamson’s statewide travels — the next Texas Mission of Mercy trip will be Oct. 28-29 in Amarillo, Texas — he has seen scores of dental students fine tune their skills and learn to provide patient care at a faster pace.

“It gives them a chance to see more than one patient in four hours. The student TMOM volunteer sees a patient every 45 minutes,” Williamson says. “We are trying to change a person’s life, whether it’s with fillings or extractions. We still review the health history with the patient. We review everything you would review in the clinic, but we don’t spend four hours doing it.”

The experience gives D3 and D4 students an extra dose of confidence, too.

“It’s really enjoyable to see the students. They have a lot of knowledge and they hit the ground running,” Williamson says. “It’s not like pulling teeth, saying ‘Come on, you can do this, you can do that,’” he adds.
When it comes time for dental students to request employment references, the relationships built at the Texas Mission of Mercy weekends mean they’ll never be in short supply of practicing dentists to vouch for their abilities.

“Some former BCD students are colleagues, because you already know their capabilities,” Williamson says. “This allows us to see the up-and-coming dentists that are D3s and D4s. We get to watch them and mentor them.”