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La Pollera de Gala

July 1, 2010
In Panama, La Pollera de Gala is the national dress. Seamstresses spend countless hours making this fluid dress with hundreds of yards of soft Irish linen.

Panama dental hygienists, from back to front, Marcella Oneal, Melissa Levy, Linda Luciani

Dental hygiene weaves its future in Panama

by Noel Kelsch, RDHAP

In Panama, La Pollera de Gala is the national dress. Seamstresses spend countless hours making this fluid dress with hundreds of yards of soft Irish linen. Adorned with lace, appliqués, and elaborate stitching, each
dress tells a story of bravery, heritage, and the future. The dancers adorn themselves with the finest of jewelry, and place tembleques (head combs) in their hair in such a way as to complement the gentle dances the maidens perform. These garments and accessories are handed down from generation to generation. Every dance step tells a story about heritage and future plans.

When I met Linda Luciani, she reminded me of La Pollera de Gala. Her fluid stories tell of the past; her yards of soft words carve a place in history for dental hygiene in Panama. Linda has a brave story to tell of the oral health heritage handed down, and her hands are an elaborate part of history in dental hygiene. Her vision for the future in dental hygiene in Panama is breathtaking.

Linda was in the first graduating class of hygienists from Panama in 1972. She is one of 10. Sadly, her class is the only graduating class in dental hygiene in the country. Courses were university level, requiring two years of theory and one year of practical applications. Since the profession was new to Panama, not many doors were open for practical application of learned skills. Hygienists had to work in state prisons, jails, and military dental clinics. They performed duties while paving an understanding of their functions and abilities. The scope of practice was multifunctional and included root planing. Even though they were instructed on infiltration anesthesia techniques, at the last moment, they were not allowed to practice it. The university stressed to its students that prevention was the key.

After graduating, it was a challenge to be recognized for the skills and abilities the class had developed. Many employers did not understand the function of a dental hygienist. Linda jumped right in working for a prominent periodontist who had sought her out. She was instrumental in making others aware of the dental hygienist’s vital role. She did a lot of root planing and preparing patients for surgery. None of her cases were ever rejected for surgery once they saw her.

In the meantime, the country’s planners in health education programs and national health services decided to end the dental hygiene program. This small group of dedicated dental hygienists, however, made a significant impact on the state of dental disease in Panama. Today, there are very few dental hygienists who continue to work in the profession. Linda has worked for Sunstar distributors in Panama for 30 years, and her license has remained active. Linda took what she learned in school and used it in the clinic and with her corporate job.

Dr. Melissa Levy is a dear friend of Linda’s, and she said, “For me, Linda is the mother of prevention teaching in Panama.”

Linda had her patients bring in their toothbrushes for a hands-on demonstration. She asked them to toss the frayed brushes they often brought in. Linda is still stopped on the street and asked prevention questions.

This was not enough for Linda as she wanted all of Panama to be aware of preventive measures for dental disease. She developed a preventive program as Sunstar G.U.M. Butler brand manager where dental professionals actually go to the point-of-sale in stores to help shoppers make informed decisions and offer hands-on instruction. She spread the message along with the product to all who would listen.

Linda will never be satisfied until “everyone knows what they need to do to fight this contagious disease.” Linda’s life has been like that beautiful dress; she has passed on precious information to generations of families, and her mark will impact Panamanians’ health, heritage, future, and bright smiles.

Noel Brandon Kelsch, RDHAP, is a syndicated columnist, writer, speaker, and cartoonist. She is a member of the Organization for Safety and Asepsis Procedures and has received many national awards. Kelsch owns her dental hygiene practice that focuses on access to care for all. She has devoted much of her 35 years in dentistry to educating people about the devastating effects of methamphetamine and drug use. She is immediate past president of the California Dental Hygienists’ Association, and is on the board of directors for the Simi Valley Free Clinic.

Currently in Panama

Dental assistants receive two years of university level education and training in dental assisting.

Dental assistants are trained at dental school and in the office by the dentist to clean teeth supragingivally and perform prophies above the gumline without supervision; they also clean teeth and perform dental prophylaxis below the gumline with the dentist’s supervision.

But most of the time, the dentist performs all subgingival cleanings, root planing, and curettage.

Universities are proposing more specialized training for the dental assistant.

One focus of the minister of health, Dr. Franklin Vergara, is dental health, and the department for oral health has been reinstated into the ministry of health to coordinate national oral health programs.

A recent study, DISABU 2008 (Diagnóstico de Salud Bucal 2008), which translates to Oral Health Diagnosis 2008, is the first national study for the knowledge of oral health conditions of the Panamanian population relating to the most prevalent diseases in the oral cavity (decay and periodontal disease). It was revealed that one of each 100 Panamanians has good oral health (no conditions and/or disease in the oral cavity). So an increased focus on prevention was suggested.

Prepared dental hygienists can come from other countries and practice but there is no dental hygiene program currently at dental schools in Panama.

Panama currently has not demonstrated interest in developing a dental hygiene program; it seems that they do not see a need for the hygienist.

Linda Luciani’s Dreams for Panama

The vital role of dental hygienists in making patients healthy and being prevention specialists re-emerge.

Health and dental professionals become aware of the specialized treatment a dental hygienist is educated and trained to deliver.

Dentists become aware of the role hygienists play in making their job easier and more time efficient.

The government develops an interest in the potential of having dental hygienists available to all who need their service.

Prevention becomes the focus of dental programs and community public health programs.

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