2014 Award of Distinction

Sept. 29, 2014
Sunstar Americas and RDH pay tribute to eight dental hygienists who have sought out compassionate care

Sunstar Americas and RDH pay tribute to eight dental hygienists who have sought out compassionate care


In 2002, Sunstar and RDH magazine combined their inspirations and developed a program to recognize dental hygienists for their professional achievements. Through this vision, 105 registered dental hygienists have been selected as Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction recipients. The respected individuals who have received this award have had the opportunity to share their stories of triumph, be recognized by their colleagues, and have experienced professional growth through the acknowledgement of their compassion and dreams.

All photography by Eric Nelson of Sunstar Americas, Inc.

The 2014 Award of Distinction recipients have been defined as unselfish, innovative, perceptive, and life changers. When an individual finds a way to change another's life and make the quality of that life better, it has been defined as compassion. The 2014 recipients demonstrate compassion through their care of oncology patients, individuals faced with complications from HIV and AIDS, while finding solutions for elder care and residents of long-term care facilities. Whether the dream is to benefit our oral health care of veterans, bring awareness to the importance of oral cancer screenings, or be recognized as an innovator of our profession, a dental hygienist provides care with her heart.

On Friday, August 15, 2014, Sunstar Americas and RDH magazine honored eight dental hygienists at the RDH Under One Roof conference in Chicago. Each recipient was recognized for her achievements during the ceremony. These proud women have joined an impressive group of 97 past award recipients who are a reflection of what can be achieved in dental hygiene when we choose to elevate our career to match our initiatives.

The 2014 Award of Distinction recipients are a unique reflection of the essential qualities necessary to make a difference, and the biographies below provide the readers an insight into the hearts of this year's chosen award recipients.

This noteworthy quote is attributed to Foster C. McClellan: "Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement."

Kimberly Cruz, RDHAP Garden Grove, California

Kimberly remembers the teenager with osteogenesis imperfecta. She remembers hearing about the paramedic who broke one of the teenager's ribs when trying to lift her during an emergency. She knew that one "harsh grab" of someone with brittle bone disease could break bones.

The teenager became Kimberly's patient. "Prior to meeting me, she had never had a cleaning," Kimberly said. "When I began my examination, I discovered that her teeth were covered with calculus. With gentleness, hours of time, and determination, I was able to completely clean her mouth.

"Now she is on a six-month recall. Even though she can't verbally say much other than grunt, she smiles every time I visit, and her mother has one less medical concern to worry about. Seeing my patients smile is what makes me most proud."

Even when she was a dental hygiene student at Cypress College (2005 graduate), Kimberly wanted to address the access-to-care issue. She obtained her RDHAP certification from West Los Angeles College in 2011, and formed her practice, Ohana Dental Hygiene Practice, which she started with an initial investment of about $10,000. She targeted homebound, state-funded, special-needs patients. She treats a wide range of patients with special needs, including people with cerebral palsy, severe autism, Prader-Willi syndrome, Alzheimer's, paralysis, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Most of her patients are in Orange County, California. She uses a portable dental unit with air/water, suction, slow-speed cable, a Cavitron unit with self-contained reservoir, hand instruments, and disposable supplies.

"My long-term goal for Ohana is to build it into a larger practice with other RDHAPs who practice ethically and with heart," Kimberly said. "The goals are to be an answer to the access-to-care problem, and to have the public recognize hygienists as a vital part of the health-care team."

The state's reimbursement system is "minuscule" for homebound patients with special needs. "My mission is for no smile to be left behind or forgotten, no matter what financial compensation is involved," Kimberly said.

Patti DiGangi, RDH, BS Addison, Illinois

The first sentence of the nomination by Dona Schulz read, "Patti DiGangi is a true innovator in the dental profession who exhibits a drive and passion to empower and mentor hygienists, dentists, and health-care providers to become patient advocates in embracing a prevention paradigm to help patients live healthier lives."

Schulz, a Colorado resident, and Nancy Brohawn, a Delaware dental hygienist who also nominated Patti for the Award of Distinction, recognize the national attention that Patti brings to the discussion of health-care issues. Both Schulz and Brohawn devoted parts of their nominations to Patti's ability to turn the tables on "sickness-based" health care.

"While dealing with the maze of forms and challenges with her own health care, Patti became resolved that others should not have to go through the same difficulty of confusion, ignorance, and lack of knowledge," Brohawn wrote. "She became determined that others should have the knowledge to be their own health advocates, understanding their records and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Schulz described Patti as a "survivor." She said her mentor would be treated by a "minimum of six to seven health-care specialists that diagnose, prescribe treatment, and prescribe a plethora of medications to treat her complex medical conditions."

"Patti has a passion to implement electronic health records to allow patients to take better control of their overall health," Schulz said. "Redefining levels of prevention, life-span records, and true collaboration are critical. Patti believes that disease and breakdown are not the inevitable results of growing older."

Patti remains an active supporter of fund-raising for oral cancer awareness events, including at RDH Under One Roof. In recent years, she wrote two books under the "DentalCodeology" title, helping professionals make sense of the coding used for dental insurance. A nationally known speaker at dental conferences, she recently attained certification as a speaker from the National Speakers Association.

"Patti has the ability to be a visionary while she challenges and encourages change in the perceptions, attitudes, and old habits in those fortunate enough to be in her audiences," Schulz said. "She is a future-oriented leader who challenges her audiences to better understand solutions to protect and enhance their knowledge base toward more effectively treating our patients."

Jill Meyer-Lippert, RDH Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Goody bags are generally popular with anyone, but medical patients who have had their lives turned upside down as a result of chemotherapy may well have the deepest appreciation for a helping hand during recuperation. Jill began doling out goody bags with oral health samples to oncology patients after starting a volunteer program in 2006. After a while, though, it became too difficult to consistently obtain the product samples needed for her program.

Instead of halting the volunteer program, Jill started her own company, Side Effect Support LLC. At the time, she was assisting a young woman through recovery from treatment for multiple myeloma. Jill provided dental support and samples prior to the chemotherapy, IV bisphosphonates, and two stem cell transplants.

"Although some studies report oral mucositis in nearly 90% of stem cell transplant patients, she completed all treatments without one mouth sore and is currently in remission," Jill said. "This was a major influence in my decision to start Side Effect Support, which provides a convenient source for affordable dental products for oncology patients." Jill also offers resources such as a blog and educational materials on her website.

"Unfortunately, there is still quite a disconnect between the medical field and the dental field, which results in many people unknowingly entering into cancer treatments with active decay and oral infection present," Jill said. "This can compromise not only their cancer treatment, but their survival. Preventing this would involve more comprehensive and preventive oral care protocols established within oncology departments, which would incorporate an updated version of our original oral care goody bags. It would also include dental offices utilizing continuing education offered through Side Effect Support to better understand the unique oral health challenges of cancer survivors."

Jill was working as a dental assistant when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She started dental hygiene school at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College soon after.

"My mother suffered terribly with oral side effects from chemotherapy, and no one seemed to know how to minimize her discomfort," Jill said. "In fact, she was told by her oncology team that it was just part of the treatment, and nothing could be done. It ignited a passion in me to find answers because I could not accept that nothing could be done to help her, and so many other people who were suffering."

Vicki Munday, RDH Lake Stevens, Washington

With all of the recent controversy surrounding the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the Smiles for Veterans program headed by Vicki Munday remains a remarkable tribute to dentistry's caring attitude for veterans.

At the inaugural Smiles for Veterans in 2013, over $15,000 in free dental care and more than 300 pounds of personal hygiene items were donated to homeless and needy veterans and their immediate family members in two Washington State counties.

"It has been said that we live in the land of the free because of the brave," Vicki said. "I believe this, and I want to give back to those who gave so much to this country. People are very willing to help out veterans."

It is anticipated that the November 2014 program will provide free dental care to veterans in other counties. As of press deadline, Vicki was organizing different locations and creating a nonprofit incorporation status for the charity.

She wrote an article for the July 2014 issue of RDH magazine about Smiles for Veterans. She commented on the participation of volunteers from both the dental community and elsewhere.

"The outpouring of love for veterans and this project was wonderful," Vicki wrote. "It truly takes a village to put on such an event. One of the hygienists brought three high school girls with her to the event, and one of the dentists brought his children so they could be a part of giving back to these veterans who served our great country."

Vicki's career has spanned 22 years since graduating from Shoreline Community College in 1992, and her career includes working part-time in various dental sales positions. She considers herself to be a "patient advocate" in the dental practices where she has been employed.

"My greatest achievement in private practice happened while temping in an office," she said. "I discovered an oral lesion I thought might be cancer and referred the patient to a local oral surgeon. The patient tracked me down to thank me for saving his life. I often share that story while doing oral cancer screenings. It drives home the fact that early detection is the key to saving lives."

Patricia Poole, PN, RDH, MS Durham, North Carolina

Lynne Slim, a columnist for RDH magazine, wrote in September 2013 about meeting Patricia. The meeting occurred not long after Slim treated a patient who was accompanied by a certified nursing assistant, and the patient was "hostile, hallucinating, and restless."

In her column, Slim explored some of Patricia's in-office treatment and the research team she worked with who published a video from the research titled "Mouth Care Without a Battle" (mouthcarewithoutabattle.org). In reviewing Patricia's basic concepts for treating dental patients with mild dementia, Slim wrote, "There's an old saying: 'You don't know what you don't know.' How true it is, especially when it comes to treating patients with an advanced cognitive impairment such as dementia."

Patricia has based much of her career on helping dental and medical professionals have a better grasp on what they need to know about the dental treatment of patients grappling with dementia. She has participated in several research efforts at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the most part, the research focused on the training of personnel in long-term care facilities to provide successful daily oral care of persons with dementia. As a result, resources for treating patients with geriatric dementia were developed, such as a DVD and a seminar. But the elbow grease in treatment is still "communication and establishing a personal relationship," according to Patricia.

"Another thing dentists and dental hygienists lose sight of is when to do palliative preventive care," she said. "They often overtreat patients, resulting in more physical problems for the patients, which can affect the quality of life they have left. The patients only need palliative daily oral preventive care of most conditions existing in the mouth in the later stages of the dementia disease process."

Patricia was nominated for the Award of Distinction in 2013 by recipient Laura Cuthbertson, a fellow North Carolinian.

Laura wrote, "Since the beginning of her dental hygiene career in 1987, Pat has been passionate in her efforts to share her skills and knowledge to guide each person in her care to a healthier life, whether in private practice, the volunteer setting, or through her research concerning oral care for patients with dementia."

For example, Patricia has volunteered her services with a Hispanic outreach effort, serving on the planning committee each year to deliver health care in coordination with a local church that sponsors the dental/health fair and other dental and health-care professionals with local Hispanic organizations.

"The joke in my family is that I volunteer my time and talents more often than I get paid to work," she said.

Jessica Smith, RDH, BS Zachary, Louisiana

Jessica works for the federally qualified health center in Baton Rouge, the Capitol City Family Health Center, which is the only health-care facility in the city to receive federal grants for the medical, dental, and psychological services delivered to patients with HIV or AIDS.

A colleague at the health center, Rhonda Litt, nominated Jessica for the Award of Distinction. "Jessica truly exemplifies passion and commitment to improving care and quality of life for all of the health center patients, with particular focus on oral health issues," Rhonda wrote. "Jessica was instrumental in the development of system-wide dental policies and procedures. This was executed with much enthusiasm and energy her first year at CCFHC."

Jessica, a 2005 graduate from Louisiana State University, has worked for Capitol City Family Health Center for the past three years. The policies that she helped develop include "extensive research on HIV patient management," but also addressed other health issues such as tuberculosis and diabetes. The health center specializes in treating the underserved and underinsured. She also assisted in initiating a school-based dental program in Donaldsonville, which is located on the Mississippi River about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

"I wrote all the required policies to perform school-based dentistry and to obtain a mobile/portable permit," Jessica said.

But it isn't all about the paperwork satisfying governmental oversight. Rhonda also praised Jessica for her efforts as a volunteer with Special Olympics and Oral Cancer Foundation events.

Rhonda said, "She has actively participated in the Special Olympics Special Smiles event, where she educated participants on nutrition, provided oral screenings, designed custom-made mouthguards for each participant, and worked with fellow colleagues to connect beneficiaries to appropriate dental resources in their communities."

Local attempts to conduct oral cancer awareness walks led Jessica to become the Oral Cancer Foundation's regional coordinator.

"In 2014, we had our first oral cancer walk/run for awareness," she said. "It was Louisiana's first oral cancer walk. We had 300 participants and raised over $13,000 to aid in research and education.

"Our second annual walk will be in October 2015. I have had family members lose their battle to cancer. Our clinic is partnered with an oncology center to perform extractions and preventive care on patients prior to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

"This partnership with the oncology center is one of the reasons, along with loss of loved ones to cancer, that compelled me to reach out to the Oral Cancer Foundation and become more active in awareness efforts for those who cannot fight."

Alison Stahl, RDH, BGS Mount Prospect, Illinois

Alison persuades many Illinois residents to take a walk. The strolls are on behalf of oral cancer awareness, and the Oral Cancer Foundation Walk for Awareness for Illinois has raised thousands of dollars for the Oral Cancer Foundation, serving as a template for other states, as well as creating other opportunities for Illinois.

Trish De Dios, a fellow volunteer at the Oral Cancer Foundation, nominated Alison for the Award of Distinction.

"Alison's commitment to spread awareness and her passionate desire to educate dental professionals about their role in early detection led her to create, organize, and execute the largest and most successful Oral Cancer Walk for Awareness that the Oral Cancer Foundation has even seen," said Trish.

Alison, a 2003 dental hygiene graduate from William Rainey Harper College, is busy preparing for the third annual walk (and now a 5K run as well) in Bensenville, Illinois, next month (Oct. 5). She realizes that the one-day walks were "inadequate." She formed a subcommittee to contact other public events and health fairs to spread awareness about oral cancer to as many gatherings as possible, including Hockey Fights Cancer, a back-to-school fair hosted by a local television station, Rockin' for the Troops, VeggieFest, the Special Olympics, the Chicago Bears' TeamSmile, and other health fairs.

"We offer free public screenings at these events, a 100% volunteer-run system," Alison said. "Over 1,000 screenings have been performed to date, and I'd love to see us grow this effort and hopefully screen 100,000 over the next five years."

Her conversation with RDH about the award was partially an attempt to recruit peers to join the cause.

"To accomplish this goal, we actively recruit dental professionals to donate their time and talents by joining our screening teams," she said. "Being visible at public events will hopefully result in more open dialogues between patients and practitioners, and set the expectation that a comprehensive screening be performed at every dental exam."

She eventually hopes to launch seminars and other educational materials to help dental professionals enhance screening skills.

In addition to being a full-time volunteer and regional coordinator for the Oral Cancer Foundation, Alison practices part-time at Family Smiles at the Glen in Glenview, Illinois. She is also a part-time clinical supervisor at Harper College.

She ended her conversation with RDH with another reminder to dental hygienists: "I've realized how valuable it would be for dental hygienists to be part of cancer treatment teams. We are educated and trained to help patients take care of their oral health, and we could be instrumental in providing care prior to, during, and after chemo and radiation therapy, to help reduce suffering and save more smiles. Few states use dental hygienists in this manner. By forming relationships with local hospitals and treatment centers, I'm hoping we can pave the way for this to happen, and create more job opportunities for hygienists as well."

Gail Weisberg, RDH Marlborough, Massachusetts

As often happens with eldercare, health-care providers are inspired by a personal experience. Gail visited her mother in a nursing facility and started developing a protocol for the dental care provided for the senior residents.

"I was drawn by the fact that I wanted someone to provide her with the best care," Gail said. "In turn, I wanted to treat their family members the way I wanted my mom treated."

As a result, she started working one day a week in nursing homes for a Massachusetts dentist. When the state allowed hygienists to provide preventive care in schools and nursing homes, Gail started her own company, Dental Stop. In 2013, her company's accounts were merged with Mobile Medical Dental Group, and she is the director of the dental care division. MMG also provides audiology, optometry, and podiatry services - the full package for in-house, long-term care facilities.

"We provide direct full dental care to the nursing home patient," Gail said. "I supervise a dedicated, passionate group of dentists, dental hygienists, and assistants. Three to four teams go out daily. I have been able to introduce the advances of digital dentures, oral cancer testing, and statistical geriatric data to further improve care for seniors."

In addition, she volunteers as the director of Project Stretch, a nonprofit organization that provides free dental care across five states and 10 countries. More than 35,000 children have received free dental care from the organization during the past 25 years. While preparing for a trip to Honduras last June, she was busy raising funds and gathering supplies.

"The dental companies and manufacturers have been most supportive and generous throughout the years," she said. "When I see them at any convention they say, 'Gail, where are you going and what do you need?' That's the best compliment, having the dental companies believing in your cause."

After the trip, she reported, "1,156 children were treated by three hygienists, one U.S. dentist, one layperson, and two Honduran dentists - a new record for one week!"

A 1974 graduate from Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene, Gail considers herself blessed to have been taught by Dr. Esther Wilkins, and she is thankful for the mentoring relationship that developed between them over the years.

"I'm lucky enough to have Dr. Esther Wilkins in my life," she said. "In 2011, I was the recipient of the Dr. Esther Wilkins Alumni Award, and I will forever cherish her namesake award. I was on the steering committee that raised the funds for the Dr. Esther Wilkins state-of-the-art hygiene clinic. I was involved on the Forsyth board for 16 years, and transitioned to be president of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences' alumni board. I was the first nonpharmacist to be elected president. The school has never been the same. Hygienists were able to share their support, dedication to their profession, and alliance to their roots."

Gail added about her career in the profession: "I wish all dental hygienists a career that has contributed to their feeling fulfilled, heartfelt, dedicated, and satisfied. Remember to never stop learning, caring, networking, and to be a part of our ADHA."

JACKIE SANDERS, RDH, BS, is the manager of professional relations for Sunstar Americas, Inc.

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