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Profile of state dental director

Nov. 1, 2005
In many states, dental hygienists are eligible for the position of state dental director.
Mary Foley, RDH, MPH
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In many states, dental hygienists are eligible for the position of state dental director. This month’s profile focuses on a dental hygienist in public health who has had a variety of roles, including that of the state dental director.

Mary Foley is the project director for the Perinatal and Infant Oral Health Project. In addition, she is the Region I Head Start oral health consultant. Ms. Foley is the former state dental director in Massachusetts, and served in this position for approximately five years. She is a graduate of the Quinsigamond Community College dental hygiene program. She earned her bachelor of science degree, magna cum laude, from Worcester State College, and her master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Policy, in epidemiology and biostatistics.

I asked her several questions about her career.

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

I had a good friend whose father was a dentist. One day during our sophomore year, she and I visited a room at the high school to explore potential careers and colleges. In those days, men were doctors and dentists, and women were nurses and dental hygienists.

There was no dental hygienist in my dentist’s office, and so the notion of becoming a health professional in this capacity intrigued me. After investigating the courses that dental hygiene students must take, I was sold. I was strong in the sciences and the will to help and serve others had been instilled in me from youth. The fact that it was a good paying job - one that a woman could fall back on if something were ever to happen to her husband - made it all the more a perfect choice.

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

I entered the public health workforce later in my career. After over 20 years in private practice and clinical dental hygiene instruction, I went back to school to obtain a master’s in public health.

It was actually a college advisor who pulled me aside the day I completed the last course of my bachelor’s degree. Just when I thought I was done, he said to me, “You have to get an MPH.” He went on to say that it was a powerful degree.

At the time, I didn’t know what he meant, but his seriousness and intentions were so genuine, I took his wise advice. I attended the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences where I earned an MPH degree in epidemiology and biostatistics, with a subspecialty in cancer prevention. I loved this program. It took me nearly four years to complete part time.

While there was no dentistry or dental public health in the curriculum, I was there to learn public health, and I did ... or so I thought. My later position as program coordinator with the Office of Oral Health would soon prove to humble me and remind me that school provides us with minimal qualifications; the rest we get from hard work and experience.

I actually entered the public health workforce as program coordinator upon graduation. I was hired to run the school-based fluoride mouthrinse program and the community water fluoridation program. On my first day of work, I was given a stack of books about 18 inches high and was told to start reading so that I could become a fluoridation expert - so I did.

Two years later, I was appointed the state dental director - a position I never aspired to or even in my wildest dreams thought I could ever possess. I accepted it and took the position very seriously, assuming a very high level of responsibility for the broad array of constituents I knew I had to serve the residents of the Commonwealth, my dental hygiene colleagues in Massachusetts and across the country, the dental community of Massachusetts, and a host of other groups. It was quite an opportunity for me, not to mention a distinct privilege, to serve so many. It just goes to show one never knows what life has in store.

What are your current positions?

In late July, I stepped down from my position as the Massachusetts’ state dental director to move to Washington, D.C., where I am currently serving as the project director for a new project titled “Improving Perinatal and Infant Oral Health.” The focus will be on improving perinatal and infant oral health through an increased access to dental care services for pregnant women and their very young children.

In addition, I am the Region I (New England), Head Start Oral Health Consultant. In this position, I provide education and technical assistance to the 84 Head Start grantees/programs, the regional office Head Start staff, and others interested in improving oral health among our region’s most vulnerable children.

Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health positions?

My dental public health experiences have been incredibly interesting and varied. I will share one that has particularly moved me. I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Betty. It was 3 p.m. on the Friday of the Memorial Day weekend in 2001. I was sitting at my desk when the call came in from a woman who identified herself as “Betty.” She informed me that she was calling me because she had reached a dead-end and had nowhere else to turn. She went on to state that she had a painful toothache and needed immediate care, but was unable to access it due to a condition from which she suffers. Her physician had made calls to local dentists, but none were willing to do a home visit.

At age 64, Betty indicated that she had not left her home in over 30 years, unable to face the anxiety that she experiences in the outside world. She shared with me the suffering that she has encountered as a result of this condition, including the emotional pain of being unable to attend her father’s funeral. Despite years of attempted therapies, hypnosis, and other medical treatments, she continues to be a prisoner in her home. Compelled by her story and the impending urgency of needed treatment, I immediately located a dentist who lives on the other side of the state to travel on the holiday weekend to care for this woman’s dental infection. Dr. Doherty, whom I consider a true saint among us, provided Betty’s necessary treatment with portable dental equipment.

Not so much as a week later, I received a card from Betty. The spiritual bouquet was filled with prayers and praises for me. She referred to me as “blessed Mary.” Moved by her tremendous faith and appreciation, I went to visit her. Betty is a beautiful woman with a deep faith and spirituality. She has accepted her condition gracefully and has an incredibly positive attitude.

These qualities observed in a woman who has clearly been “short-changed” on many levels has been inspirational to me and has helped me realize the many challenges that people live with. Her existence, which she may think insignificant, really reaches more people than she knows. Her way of life signifies the need for compassion by those of us who are more fortunate. Since my meeting with Betty, we have been able to establish routine home-care dental services for her. A dental hygienist by the name of Nancy Johnson, who works for the Tufts’ community outreach program, visits her regularly to provide routine oral assessment and preventive services.

What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?

What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?

Dental hygiene is about promoting oral health for all Americans so that their overall health and well-being may be fully achieved. When considering how to practice dental hygiene, one might consider the true goal first and then ask the following questions:

• Why am I practicing dental hygiene?

• Is it because I really care about people, their oral health, and the impact that oral health has on one’s overall health and well-being?

• Would I be doing this if I didn’t get paid so well?

• What do I enjoy most about it?

• When my head hits the pillow at night, do I feel like I offered my professional expertise in a manner that is true to myself and to the aforementioned goals? Did I do something of value for someone else, for society, for myself?

I have practiced dental hygiene for nearly 30 years. I have been fortunate to grow in the profession and expand in a variety of practice roles. Every step of my journey has been critical, and I would not trade one day of it. In all aspects - private practice, education, and in public health - I have faced adversity. But each time, I have grown from it and became a better person. When we are young, adversity and challenge have a way of making us fearful, and we often back away. But it is only through these tough times that we come to realize who we are, what our needs are, the needs of others, the potential we have to help others, the gifts we can offer others, and the opportunity to experience a richer and more meaningful existence.

Advancing my education was key. Some believe that advanced education is about getting a better job. I would argue it is really about personal growth. When I was in school, many asked me what I was planning do with my master’s in public health. Surprisingly, I had no answer. I’m not one to plan. I just knew that I loved to learn and what I was learning was of particular interest to me. I knew that the right opportunity would present itself, and that I needed to be watchful, ready, and willing when it did.

Author’s note: Mary Foley’s career epitomizes the versatility of opportunities in dental public health. She has used her creative and educational skills to help dental hygiene progress, and this has ultimately benefited society!

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is an associate professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health,” (, which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.