The 2018 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction

There’s no secret formula for becoming a Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction recipient, but these individuals all have one thing in common—they have chosen a path on which their compassion and desire to make a difference excels. Here are the stories of the 2018 recipients: Susan Cotton, Lesley Tuomi, Rhoda Kublickis, and Jasmin Haley.

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One profession. Four individuals. Many communities. So many lives touched by positive change.

By Jackie L. Sanders, MBA, RDH

What does it take to become a Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction (AOD) recipient? This is a question that gives many pause, as there is no secret formula, specific recipe, or checklist you must complete. The dental hygiene profession has numerous opportunities for growth and development, and the AOD recipients choose a path on which their compassion and desire to make a difference excels. The AOD recipients are a nationwide group who have become recognized for their driving force and desire to make positive changes.

Seventeen years ago, Sunstar partnered with RDH magazine to create a platform that would recognize those who are making a difference. On Thursday, August 2, 2018, four inspiring dental hygienists took the stage to be honored for their achievements. Susan Cotten, Jasmin Haley, Rhoda Kublickis, and Lesley Tuomi are the most recent recipients. These women join their fellow colleagues, bringing this prestigious organization of individuals to a grand total of 121.

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The 2018 recipients are from Colorado, Maryland, Florida, and Minnesota. They were selected from over 300 applicants and have been described as humble, visionary, focused change makers. Listening to them and reading about their accomplishments, it is evident that each of these women understands the current trends in health care and recognizes the magnitude of interprofessional education and the value of working with an interprofessional team. These ladies are creating positive change for the homeless, those facing cancer, individuals seeking closure, impoverished communities, and their fellow dental hygienists.

Our award recipients don’t always know where their path will end, but they do know they need to keep moving forward. With time and determination, a plan will begin to materialize, and the goal will appear. The success may be a well-defined plan, and many times it may be a series of achievements leading them to their final destiny.

Spending time with many of these passionate individuals, one will recognize their strong internal drive to make a difference, contagious positive attitudes, and wills to face challenges with the expectation of success.

Susan Cotten, BSDH, RDH, Integrative RDH, OMT
Westminster, Colorado
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Susan Cotten’s passion is raising awareness and educating on HPV and oral and oropharyngeal cancers. A 1994 graduate of the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine Division of Dental Hygiene, she began a health-care career while in junior high school at her family’s animal hospital. “I worked on weekends and after school, starting out in the back: cleaning kennels and surgery and exam rooms, and [doing] sterilization,” she says. “My sister and I had to prove ourselves and work our way up.” Cotten later learned to perform dental care for dogs and cats, which may have piqued her interest in dental hygiene. A conversation with a client at the animal hospital who was a dental hygienist sealed the decision.

After graduation and while working in private practice, Cotten had a patient, “Evelyn,” who had been diagnosed with HPV, which caused her oropharyngeal and cervical cancer. Little did Cotten realize this patient would help reshape the trajectory of her career. As Cotten explains, “Evelyn and Donny Osmond changed my life and took me on a journey of finding out more about this horrific cancer and finding a passion to raise awareness.” Donny Osmond? Yes. The former teen idol and current Las Vegas ShowStopper sponsors “Make a Difference,” a program that selects 10 local community program ideas and offers support to make them happen. Wanting to help Evelyn and others affected with HPV, Cotten decided at the Donny Osmond Fan Gathering to create “M.A.D. (Make a Difference) for Healthy Smiles” to focus on raising awareness of HPV and oral/oropharyngeal cancer. It was selected by Osmond out of hundreds of entries.

The next year, the 10 fan club members whose projects were selected returned to the Fan Gathering to present Osmond with their results. “He gave us each three minutes. We could use as many pictures as we wanted, which he projected on the showroom screens. He put a lot of himself into encouraging this group of 10 to make a difference. It made my girl crush resurface seeing the kind of man he is.

“During that year, I joined with the Oral Cancer Foundation to become a regional coordinator and organized Colorado’s first Oral Cancer 5K event and other free oral cancer screening events,” Cotten writes in her nomination. “Throughout the next eight years, I have continued to serve as regional coordinator for the Oral Cancer Foundation and follow my passion for raising awareness about this horrific cancer by organizing more walk and run events and free oral cancer screenings, including free screenings at the Denver Broncos Health and Wellness Expo for the last three years. I also appeared on a local radio talk show during Oral Cancer Awareness month, spoke to dental and dental hygiene students, and presented to Dental Hygiene Association meetings.”

Cotten is aware that short appointment times can make performing a complete head and neck oral cancer screening difficult. She even admits complacency in performing all parts of the screening until she met Evelyn and learned of her oral cancer diagnosis. “Having Evelyn as my patient,” she explains, “I knew I needed to once again perform a complete and thorough head and neck screening on every patient.” She also realized she did not know enough about HPV and oropharyngeal cancer.

Cotten started a business, Oral Cancer Consulting LLC, consulting and educating offices in the “Cotten Method,” which assists offices to ensure their oral cancer system is using best practices. This includes educating the entire team on HPV, additions to the health history questionnaire, reviewing, updating, and synchronizing the head and neck oral cancer screening, reviewing the referral system, documentation, and dialog with patients. She also offers a CE course, “The one screening your patients can’t live without.” Cotten is an OMT and screens patients for sleep apnea while performing head and neck oral cancer screening. She also works at the Stout Street Health Center at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless as an integrative dental hygienist, screening clients and working alongside a team of medical and dental professionals.

“Receiving this award is such an honor. To be selected is very humbling, as there are countless RDHs making a difference in a myriad of ways. As dental professionals, we are uniquely positioned to make an impact in early detection and saving lives,” she said.

Lesley Tuomi, BSDH, RDH, REF
Richfield, Minnesota
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Lesley Tuomi has always felt a drive to take care of others. Although she enjoyed her other jobs prior to dental hygiene, there was always a feeling of something missing. As a dental hygiene student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, she was very interested in public health, especially as it pertained to children. Through her work at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center Dental Clinic in North Minneapolis, she helps provide dental, vision, hearing, and BMI screenings within the school setting to children with little or no access to care.

“Through my work at NorthPoint, I am able to affect the lives of some of the children most in need of dental care,” she writes. “Once students are identified as having a dental or medical need, parents are contacted and arrangements are made for the children to receive care in the clinic. This not only provides the children with access to dental and medical care, but also breaks down the barriers of transportation and time commitment for the parents. Many of the residents in these neighborhoods live in poverty. They tend to seek care only when the pain has become so excruciating that they just can’t take it anymore. Moreover, with generally low education levels, they learn by example, leading to generation after generation who are unaware of proper oral hygiene or good dietary habits.”

Tuomi cites a case where a young boy’s classroom behavior improved dramatically once an infected tooth was removed: “What seemed like the simple act of taking out an infected tooth had a ripple effect that created not just a huge impact for this little boy, but decreased stress levels for his mother and teachers as well.”

Over the past eight years, Tuomi has worked to create, implement, and grow an outreach team to provide dental care to those in poverty. “By acting as an ambassador for dental health, professionals from both dental and medical fields along with grant writers, community health workers, MNSure navigators (insurance specialists), and school personnel have a combined mission of improving the health of the community,” she says. Besides the school screenings, Tuomi currently oversees the “COACH Program,” a caries prevention outreach to pregnant women and to children aged zero to five years, a “Sealant Days” program providing free dental sealants in February, “Guard Your Grin,” providing free oral cancer screening for adults in April, and a back-to-school event in which children aged one to 17 are provided with medical and dental check-ups during the month of August. Tuomi also volunteers at community events throughout North Minneapolis neighborhoods. Thousands of people are touched by the programs that Tuomi coordinates each year.

Of course, no job comes without obstacles, and Tuomi works to overcome a common one: work and family balance. “Like a lot of working moms, I love my job; but I am saddened that my children sometimes miss out on activities because I am not able to get them there,” she says. Between a full-time job and weekends with community event outreach participation, she works to intertwine work time with family time wherever she can: “I have brought my family with me to outreach events or put my daughters to work stuffing hygiene kits.”

The Delta Dental Foundation of Minnesota presented Tuomi with the Spirit of Public Health Award in 2016. Now, receiving the Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction leaves her feeling shocked and disbelieving. “I don’t go to work every day looking for recognition,” she says. “I go because I believe in the work that I am doing. It is my hope that winning this award shines a light on the extraordinary need for dental care within our communities and inspires others to look for ways to meet that need.”

Rhoda P. Kublickis, MHS, RDH, FAADH
Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida
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Rhoda Kublickis graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1983. She worked with Dr. Melvyn Nathanson for 25 years, which planted the seeds of forensic dentistry. Kublickis writes, “My experience with my patient John is what led me to pursue forensics courses during my bachelor’s and master’s programs.” She says that in 1993, 26-year-old John, one of her favorite patients, discovered his passion for flying. Unfortunately, something happened to the plane he was piloting one day and he was killed when the plane crashed and burned as his parents watched in horror. “With the x-rays I had taken of John, we were able to assist the medical examiner in obtaining a positive identification of the remains. This experience made me proud. Because I had been thorough in record collection, we were able to assist with making a horrible situation a little less horrible.” 

She credits Dr. Barbara Needell as a mentor and the dentist who ushered her into the world of dental forensics, as well as Dr. Vincent LaSalle. It was their professional support that allowed her to pursue her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She also credits her parents, her husband, Alex, and her three sons in supporting her throughout her career. She writes that they encouraged her professional growth in many ways. 

“I have undergone training to respond to mass fatality incidences in Florida since 2008,” she writes. “It is all voluntary until we are deployed. I can take radiographs and I am trained to call the families to gather dental and medical information, DNA, and photos of missing or deceased members of a mass fatality incident. I have been called into duty many times.

“As a part of FEMORS, Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System, my phone rang during ADHA in Pittsburgh. The call was asking me to respond with my availability to be deployed after the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016.”

Kublickis has developed and delivered a CE course regarding the role the dental hygienist can have in mass casualty incidents and the importance of thorough dental records. “We all understand radiographs are part of every clinician’s practice,” she writes. “We also know that patients can be quick to decline them. I help patients who decline x-rays understand the importance. I explain that I assist in forensic identification, and radiographs of teeth have been the only way families have closure. Once you have had an experience using x-rays for identification, you understand the importance at an entirely different level.”

She has also completed hundreds of hours working with forensic odontologists in three Florida counties. “I am used as a resource for hygienists pursuing their bachelor’s degrees, as a mentor, and I can connect them with forensic odontologists in their area. Having the ability to work with the students and foster an interest in forensics is an amazing feeling,” she writes. “While my years of involvement in forensics have left me with many heart-wrenching experiences, I am always thankful when I can provide assistance to loved ones of the deceased. It breaks my heart when situations arise where I am unable to help. It is my goal to be able to offer closure for all families when losing a loved one. Closure is so important.”

Kublickis also volunteers at Florida’s Mission of Mercy, ADHA Community Service Day, and at Dental Impact Day at Under One Roof from 2010 to 2017. She has attained her fellowship in the American Academy of Dental Hygiene with concentration on clinical practice on oral-systemic diseases. She has educated thousands of dental and medical professionals on prevention as the regional education manager for Xlear/Spry, Inc., the leading manufacturer of the xylitol dental defense system.

Jasmin Haley, MSDH, RDH, CDA
Randallstown, Maryland
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Jasmin Haley has a passion to serve people living with HIV/AIDS. “She has made it her mission to bring awareness to our profession on how we can better serve, communicate with, and treat these populations,” writes a colleague. “She brings heart and compassion to the communities that are easily forgotten. Her topics of education can be unsettling for some to listen to, but she doesn’t allow stigma to minimize her compassion. She gives the empathetic voice of a dental hygienist without judgment.”

“I have the privilege to be part of a unique faculty team that is a part of the University of Maryland, School of Medicine, JACQUES Initiative,” Haley writes. “I have the privilege of being a part of an amazing interprofessional team responsible for educating future health-care professionals and the community about HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. Through the years, I have volunteered in any capacity to serve the HIV/AIDS population or populations most at risk. The willingness to volunteer has led me to my current role as an educational consultant with a world-renowned HIV program in Baltimore, Maryland. I am tasked with refining and creating new curriculum to educate future physicians, dentists, dental hygienists, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers about the fundamentals of HIV. It’s amazing to take part in helping these future professionals learn to work interprofessionally to tackle the HIV and HCV epidemic.”

Haley has demonstrated her commitment to this population since 2007, when she devoted her degree completion practicum to providing care and preparing the future of dental hygiene for treating people living with HIV/AIDS. It was this choice that grew into working in a Ryan White Dental Clinic, mentoring with an HIV/AIDS expert, Dr. Valli Meeks, DDS, MS, RDH, and leading to her future role as an educational consultant that teaches the future of health care for community members at high risk of contracting HIV or living with HIV.

Prior to finding her passion, she had to find her path. First attending dental assisting school, then going on to dental hygiene school at Allegany College of Maryland in 2007, and then finishing a degree completion program at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in 2008, she began working in clinical hygiene and providing care in Ryan White Dental Clinic at the School of Dentistry. By 2015, she was three years out of the operatory and writes that she “was in the pit of despair professionally. I worked in a toxic environment and had many toxic relationships that took their toll on me.”

Haley had a life-transforming experience when she attended ADHA Unleashing Your Potential in 2015. After the workshop, “I decided I would no longer allow myself to be unhappy in my professional career. I immediately started my journey of personal and professional freedom.” She started her business called “Beyond the Prophy,” an online, on-demand, continuing education career advancement program, and later, a podcast, “MOMgienists,” to support hygienists through their journey in motherhood. Haley completed her master’s in dental hygiene from the University of Bridgeport, Fones School of Dental Hygiene, in May 2018.

“I am a national speaker who has reached the heart of many and I’ve spoken at the best dental hygiene events of the year. I am an educational consultant at an HIV/AIDS program with experts from various disciplines. I am an advisory committee member of the RDH Graduate newsletter. I am a published writer, podcaster, blogger, adjunct faculty at Howard Community College, and a very proud MOMgienist. Why? Because I took ownership of my career! I understood that I was enough and that nothing would continue to hold me back. I took a great leap of faith in 2016 to start my business, Beyond the Prophy, and I haven’t looked back since. My greatest accomplishment will be to continue to use my God-given abilities to help other dental professionals provide the best patient-centered care and reach their
highest level of personal and professional freedom. I’m well on the way! I am so thankful for the countless number of professionals who have supported my journey.”

Haley writes that her journey is still unfolding. She credits her mother, Algie Jenkins, her husband, Clarence, and her daughters, Priscilla and Penelope, with “keeping me grounded in love. They are the true MVPs of my life.”

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