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Mission-driven

By Christine Nathe, RDH, MS

This month I'm highlighting a dental hygienist with a particularly interesting background in public health. Jacqueline Juhl is a faculty member at Seattle Central College, where she teaches dental public health. She tells her students, "Community oral health is the cherry on top of what we do as oral health professionals. We get to take all the wonderful preventive scientific skills, technologies, and education that we work so hard to achieve, and share them on whole populations rather than one person at a time."

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She points out that not much could be better than effectively preventing disease and suffering on a broad scale using evidence-based, scientific methodologies. This is what she had to tell me about her career.

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

I was a clinical and public health nutritionist and consulted for a pedodontist before I became a dental hygienist, and I really enjoyed direct patient care. When I married my husband, I became his dental assistant, but I wanted more patient responsibility. As our practice grew, he needed a dental hygienist, and by this time I was completely engrossed in dental sciences due to his mentorship and inspiration.

How did you get into public health? Did you need additional education?

I grew up as a military child and was a military spouse for a time, which allowed me to closely witness deprivation and poverty across the U.S. and abroad. In my nutrition career, I was a researcher for the new USDA WIC program in south Texas. Later, I was the administrator of a 900 caseload WIC program in rural Maryland. Again, I witnessed the physical, emotional, and social effects of deprivation and poverty.

Seeing the faces of people in such great need stirred something relentless from within. I became compelled to help any way and any time I could. Dental public health seemed a logical place to make a positive difference. I truly love serving others as a registered dental hygienist, and I've never looked back!

What are your current positions?

I'm part-time faculty at Seattle Central College. I teach a three-part series of Community Oral Health, Selective Populations, Professional Issues, and Restorative Clinic. I also teach nutrition in a Dental Hygiene Fundamentals Class, and assist in Local Anesthesia Clinic. I frequently volunteer with Medical Teams International and local component's Sealant Days and Vet Days. I graduated with a dual emphasis MSDH in Dental Hygiene Education and Community and Rural Oral Health in May.

Can you discuss any interesting experiences you've had in your public health positions?

My husband and I had always hoped to do humanitarian work abroad, but in 1999 he suffered a potentially lethal illness and, though well recovered, he no longer travels well. During my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to participate, with the full support of my awesome faculty, in two humanitarian missions – Project Pacific Partners and Project Continuing Promise – from April 1, 2011 to September 5, 2011, as a University of California Pre-Dental Society volunteer. My husband and I agreed that I should go for both of us. It was terribly hard to be away from my family for five months, and to make the financial and personal sacrifices required.

However, because of my dual background in nutrition and dental hygiene, I provided clinical and educational services in Tonga, Vanuatu, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Haiti. Serving on these missions was the hardest and most rewarding work I've ever done, particularly because I was able to provide oral health education as well as clinical services. That, to me, was most significant, because providing culturally appropriate oral health education (often in a target population's native tongue, without interpreters when possible) is the difference between "giving someone a fish" and "teaching someone to fish." I do feel that the oral health and nutrition education we provided was equally as important as the clinical dental hygiene services we provided.

Serving on these U.S. government-sponsored missions along with many multinational dental providers proved to be truly formative for my career, and inspired many research projects that I'll have to bequeath to future students. This experience deepened my conviction about the critical value of our dental hygiene profession as the prevention specialists. The need is tremendous, at home and abroad. As dental hygienists, we need to hold our own with other dental and health-care providers. While our profession needs both quality providers and visionary leaders, I feel more strongly than ever that we also need to achieve higher education to cement our credibility and value as health providers. I hope to serve on other missions and mission-like programs here in the U.S. as part of my future doctoral education plans.

What advice would you give to practicing hygienists who are thinking of doing something different?

Explore and embrace your passions. Ask yourself, "Why am I doing what I'm doing?" and "What can I do to make this world a better, orally healthy place?" I believe most dental hygienists chose this profession because they want to make a positive difference in the world. There is so much need, both worldwide and in our backyard. We must prepare for the future with education. We must take risks and challenge the status quo. Finding the courage and ability to implement change effectively requires tenacity and perseverance. So, get involved! Each dental hygienist is unique. People out there need your uniqueness to help them achieve the optimal oral health that is their inalienable right.

Jacqueline Juhl has an active entrepreneurial trait that is common in dental hygienists. Her passion for dental hygiene and compassion for people have combined to become an unstoppable motivation to further our profession. She is a delight and inspiration!

CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS, is director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at cnathe@salud.unm.edu or (505) 272-8147.

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