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The 2020 Heart to Hands Award presented by Philips and RDH

April 8, 2020
The Philips/RDH Heart to Hands Award celebrates a profession that transforms the lives of patients and dental hygiene clinicians and educators alike. Please read their stories.

It has been said that one of the best things in life is the stories we share. The practice of dental hygiene offers many opportunities to reveal our own stories and discover those rich life experiences of others. Stories with heart and hope are often at the center of our work life and sharing these spreads the message that dental hygiene practice is indeed a worthy profession. It’s bigger than any job description or intraoral technique and larger than the sum of its parts. Dental hygienists serve by healing with their hands and connecting heart to heart.

The Philips Heart to Hands Award is a celebration of dental hygienists’ passion for the profession. Now in its fourth year, the awards’ video submissions truly highlight the dedication and positive change dental hygienists bestow on the world. This year was no exception, as three extraordinary winners shared their enthusiasm for making a difference.

Sonya Dunbar, BSDH, RDH

Sonya Dunbar, BSDH, RDH, has a passion for working with aging adults. Sonya, also known as the Geriatric Tooth Fairy, has been a registered dental hygienist for 27 years. She is a national public speaker who affirms the importance of oral health, and has even given a TEDx talk. Her interest in the geriatric community began as a child, when her grandmother reminded her that “not everyone has a reason to smile daily, but [she] could give them one.” When her beloved grandmother moved into a long-term care facility, Sonya was there regularly to help clean her dentures. She was soon being asked by other seniors to help them brush their teeth. “Before I knew it, I was picking up dozens of toothbrushes to take to the facility.” After her grandmother passed, she felt an obligation to continue caring for older adults after witnessing firsthand their often deplorable oral conditions. “I had to do something. My grandmother was my ‘everything,’ and I love healthy smiles. It was natural for me to marry the two passions: seniors and smiles.”

To honor her grandmother’s legacy, Sonya provides oral care regularly in multiple nursing homes, where she believes every senior deserves dignity, respect, and oral health. Her passion is evident, as Sonya’s vision is to reduce the complications (including death) related to poor oral hygiene. “I am the catalyst for those whose voices have become a whisper,” Sonya states.

Her recommendation to you? Adopt a local long-term care facility, provide dental instruction for the staff on a regular basis, and donate oral care products whenever possible. “As a little girl I always loved to smile. A smile is something you can give away and yet still keep for yourself and it’s free! It made me feel good because I knew I gave people a piece of me. That sparked my admiration for healthy mouths.”

Sonya has proactively created her own opportunities to reach more seniors in need in her home state of Florida. She provides hands-on, in-service trainings to senior caregivers. She is the CEO of The Geriatric Toothfairy, coowner of Mobile Dental Xpress, cofounder of the National Mobile Dental Conference and the American Mobile Dentistry Alliance, and the published author of Golden Nuggets for Life. In her spare time, she is pursuing a doctorate in gerontology. Sonya is a tribute to our profession, and a testament to the celebration of dental hygienists everywhere!

What's Sonya's video below.

Valia Sammarco, BSDH, RDH

A passion for prevention drives Valia  Sammarco, BSDH, RDH. Even though others in her family chose a nursing or educational career, Valia selected another path. During high school summers, she would “shadow” her family dentist and loved the hands-on craft of dentistry as well as the unique patient interactions. “I believe there is so much to be explored in preventive health care and becoming a dental hygienist was the first milestone in my journey in the field of public health.”

In dental hygiene school, Valia was given the opportunity to work as a research assistant on a project led by one of her professors. “The project opened my eyes to the lack of oral health care that the elderly population received, and what barriers they face.” The project, “Electric brushes improve outcomes in caregiver-assisted oral hygiene,” was published in the journal Nursing2019.

In her graduate degree program, Valia interns at her local public health association (formerly Visiting Nurses Association VNA). Valia says, “It has transformed into an organization that sends health-care professionals, including occupational therapists, speech therapists, nurses, and physical therapists to the homes of those who qualify for their care. The biggest population it serves is the elderly. Of course, the first thing I noticed was that there was no dental professional on this team.”

Like all detail-oriented dental hygienists, Valia did her research to determine how she could be involved to help her local community. Her town already had a company serving elementary schools in public health dental hygiene, so instead she created an oral initiative to gather and create educational resources for health-care providers. “The material educates them on basic oral hygiene, common side effects of medications, denture care, and other ways to improve their patient’s oral health.”

Though her goal is to get oral health education to these homebound patients, this program also drives the message that oral health is important for overall health and that all health-care professionals should be versed in basic oral hygiene practices and knowledge. “I am honored to be a recipient of this award and hope to inspire all those who are looking to make a difference in their community, especially those who strive to spread smiles!” Valia works and resides in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and is pursuing a graduate degree from Southern New Hampshire University. Valia anticipates completing her Master of Science in public health in April of 2020 while continuing to work in private practice.

Watch Valia's video below.

Faizan Kabani, PhD, MHA, MBA, BSDH, FAADH

Faizan Kabani, PhD, MHA, MBA, BSDH, FAADH, had a personally transformative experience when treating a child with special needs. Faizan and the young girl connected on a deeper level than a usual clinic experience: she was seeing him more like an older brother than just another caregiver. After treatment concluded, she began to pray for him. It touched him so deeply that it changed his life. “The notion of caring for people with disabilities is an integral part of my philosophy.”

Faizan says the desire to serve humanity and improve quality of life brought him into the health-care profession. “I chose dental hygiene because the concept of oral health sounded intriguing to me as an undergraduate student. Prior to college, I had extremely limited experiences in the dental office and therefore found myself even more intrigued by the potential value oral health care provided to overall health. As I learned more about the profession through my education and experiences, I became increasingly passionate about becoming an oral health-care provider. As I look back and reflect, I find myself extremely privileged to have been exposed to and provided an opportunity to be a part of this extraordinary profession.”

Caring for patients with special needs at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children was one of his first positions. Responsible for providing and teaching how to provide care, Faizan was presented with the opportunity to serve as a mentor and guide to dental hygiene students as they rotated through the facility.
“During my service, I was fortunate to provide teachable moments to approximately 500 oral health-care professionals, now dispersed throughout the nation, some of whom continue to stay in touch and seek advice. I have also been fortunate to share my knowledge by publishing multiple articles in peer-reviewed journals on caring for dental patients with special health-care needs.”

Faizan currently is assistant professor at the Caruth School of Dental Hygiene at Texas A&M College of Dentistry and lives in Euless, Texas. “I am privileged to be a part of several initiatives over the past decade that aim to improve that status quo at multiple levels. I continue to learn from others who have walked before me and hope to serve as a role model for others who would like to join the cause. I make it a point to model these qualities and honor our students individually, amongst their peers, and amongst the faculty, where possible. I look forward to learning something new every day and use these opportunities as an inspiration to become a better educator, mentor, and person.”

Watch Faizan's video below.

Cathleen Terhune Alty, BA, RDH, is a graduate of The Ohio State University. In the dental field for nearly 40 years, she is a prolific award-winning dental writer with over 300 published articles. Alty has also worked as a practice consultant and CE conference speaker. She presently works as a clinical dental hygienist at a Navy base in Virginia.