by Christine Nathe, RDH, MS
This month, I was honored to interview Tammy Keller, RDH, BS, a recent (2008) RDH Sunstar Award of Distinction winner.
Tammy went to dental hygiene school at Northcentral Technical College for her associate's degree and graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota.
She currently works as a dental hygienist with the Menominee Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin. In this role, she not only provides dental care to patients, but she coordinates the school-based fluoride rinse program as the health promotion/disease prevention representative and is a member of the Menominee County AIDS Task Force and Diabetes Committee.
In addition to her RDH Sunstar Award, Tammy has been awarded an outstanding service award from the Menominee Tribal Clinic and an award for excellence in dental hygiene from the Indian Health Service Division of Oral Health. Here is what Tammy had to say about her career.
Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?
I chose dental hygiene because I loved the health field, and I found the dental profession to be very interesting. I have always enjoyed working with and helping others.
How did you get into dental public health? Did you need additional education?
After five years of clinical hygiene in private practice, I accepted a full-time clinical hygiene position on the Menominee Indian Reservation. Working for a few years doing clinical hygiene and seeing all the disparities, I wanted to do more to improve oral health. I enrolled in the Community Dental Health Certificate program at Northeast Technical College in Green Bay, Wisc. The program was phenomenal in teaching me how to develop evidenced-based oral health programs, how to effectively assess the needs of the community, cultural diversity, and more. I strongly recommend this program.
What are your current positions?
I currently work three days a week doing clinical hygiene, and two days a week are devoted to community oral health programs. I am part of the diabetic team, seeing patients in the medical department and offering oral health education. I work with the WIC and Head Start program applying fluoride varnish four times per year.
I have written a Maternal Child Health grant working with pregnant women and infants using xylitol products to reduce tooth decay. I am the school-based mouthrinse and sealant program coordinator. I serve as the oral health representative on the AIDS task force, Tobacco Coalition, Health Promotion/Disease Prevention Committee, Head Start Health Advisory Board, and I also serve as the Indian Health Service Bemiji area dental hygiene mentor.
Can you discuss any particularly interesting experiences you have had in your dental public health position?
The most interesting thing to me in public health is the significant impact that you can make on a community. Community oral health prevention programs work!
This has been the most rewarding experience in my life, seeing the significant oral health disparities in the native population and knowing that over the past 10 years there is a documented decrease in tooth decay in native children.
What type of advice would you give to a practicing hygienist who is thinking of doing something different?
Think outside the box. Dental hygiene is not a job — it is a passion. It is a lot of work, but very rewarding. I saw the opportunity to make changes and make a difference to improve oral health in the community. I created my position and you can too.