by Christine Nathe, RDH,

Be active, network, and take a chance!

Nov. 1, 2010
This month I am spotlighting a dental hygienist who most definitely displays the entrepreneurial spirit of a public health dental hygienist.
This month I am spotlighting a dental hygienist who most definitely displays the entrepreneurial spirit of a public health dental hygienist. Actually, Lisa M. Esparza, RDH, BS, MSDH, is truly a multifaceted dental hygienist who has practiced dental hygiene by filling all of the ADHA roles, while embedding a common public health thread. She is the perfect example for those interested in fulfilling the ADHA roles of a dental hygienist.

She is a four-time graduate of the University of New Mexico and was recently awarded the University of New Mexico Division of Dental Hygiene Distinguished Alumni Award. Lisa has many awards of which to boast, including the ADHA Distinguished Service Award, Special Olympics Summer Games Volunteer of the Year Award, NMDHA Outstanding Contributions Award, and the ADHA/Colgate Community Outreach Award. She is currently clinical flight chief and previous chief of preventive dentistry at Kirtland Air Force Base Dental Squadron. Lisa has definitely had many interesting career experiences!

Source: American Dental Hygienists' Association, 2007

Why did you decide to go into dental hygiene?

Initially my interest in the dental arena was a quick and easy medical career. After receiving a dental assisting certificate from the University of New Mexico in 1982, I quickly learned that I preferred working autonomously; the quest for my dental hygiene degree began. First I obtained my associate's degree in 1989, and then my bachelor's degree in 1990. Every day since I have never second-guessed my career choice. Over a decade later, my venerated alma mater offered a master's dental program in dental hygiene, and I immediately enrolled in the first class graduating in 2006. Dental hygiene is my passion, and I am truly blessed with all the diverse opportunities that have come my way over the past 21 years.

How did you get into dental public health?

While I enjoyed my traditional private practice experience for 10 years, I wanted a chance to reach the populations that have no access to traditional care. I united with a fellow dental hygienist and friend, Ginny Berger, RDH, who owns ACC Consultants "Traveling Miles to Protect Smiles." We had the same thirst for serving the underserved. We provided care to rural school-based programs, detention facilities, geriatric care centers, and nursing homes throughout New Mexico.

Six years later I decided that I needed to complete my long-term goal of attaining my master's degree. While in the educational arena, I served as a research intern at the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine Health Science Center in Public Health and taught my first didactic class solo, "Special Needs Care for the Dental Hygienist," for five years, fulfilling another niche of my dental hygiene aspirations.

What is your current position?

Currently, I am clinical flight chief and previous chief of preventive dentistry for the 377th Dental Squadron, Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., since 2007.

Our base provides comprehensive dentistry for approximately 5,000 active duty airmen. My career is an ever-changing, multifaceted position that has rewards beyond monetary. Every two years the administrative leaders change, and the circumstances and limitations (budgetary or logistics) add new challenges for our team to overcome. On a daily basis, I apply one or all six roles of the dental hygiene career model.

Initially, my dental hygiene beliefs dissuaded me from accepting this position. I consulted my mentor and friend, Professor Christine Nathe, about the Air Force's practice of utilizing prophy technicians to meet the preventive needs of their community. My wise mentor stated, "You can stand on the sidelines and criticize or get in there and make a difference." This advice is etched into my brain whether I am trying to motivate ambitious 20-year-old airmen to quit or limit their intake of energy drinks or tobacco use, educate our diabetic airmen on the importance of routine dental care, or working with our new prophy technicians as they venture out as advocates to promote oral health care. This is an important lesson for all dental hygienists to remember: We have the ability to change and influence the direction of our career and profession by just taking a chance to make a difference.

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

The beauty about public health opportunities is that there are so many possibilities to be involved on a small or large scale. My fulfillment comes from "climbing the mountain" - finding a cause, addressing a need, and improving it on some level. My assorted favorite community outreach projects that I coordinated include: Healthy Smiles Children's Clinical Outreach, Special Olympics Special Smiles Programs in ABQ, Farmington and Las Cruces for 12 years, ADHA Tobacco Cessation Liaison, and an original trainer for the P.A.N.D.A. program. My association with the dental hygiene students as an educator, mentor, or serving on the UNM Dental Hygiene Program Advisory Board and other organizations, such as the NM Medical Society Clinical Preventive Initiative Board, allow me to bring oral health care to the forefront and let others see how amazing and fun it can be to be part of a public health project.

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

Be active, network, and take a chance! Each and every career opportunity has been because of my involvement with public health ventures. I have held a multitude of elected offices and served as chair of several Presidential appointed councils/committees on the local, state, and national levels. ADHA highlights were chair of Public Relations Council (four years), chair of Council on Member Services (three years), ADHA Annual Session Council Member, member of ADHA Masterfile Project Advisory Committee, one of the original 12 members of the ADHA Smoking Cessation Advisory Committee for more than eight years, president of NMDHA 1996-97, HDDHS president 2006-2007, and NMDHA public relations chair for 13 years. As I reflect back on my career, my most vivid memory is the people I have worked with or for and how much fun we had while we completed our mission.

To me, professional membership means friends across the United States who come together to have a positive effect on a mutual cause. Remember, hygienists are typically people-oriented beings, so grab a friend/peer, find a project you like, make a plan, and change someone's knowledge, beliefs, or habits just by organizing a group of hygienists to follow your lead.

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a 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 Research" (, which is in its third edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.

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