Heart to Hands Award

Their inspiring, heartfelt stories showcase the power and compassion of the dental hygiene profession. Meet our 2019 winners here.

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Inspiring, heartfelt stories showcasing the power and compassion of the profession

Gail B. Stoops, RDH, BSDH

RDH magazine editors

Dental hygienists are some of the greatest communicators, caregivers, and compassionate healers in health care. Their motivating stories capture our hearts in inspiring ways. They reignite our desire to make differences in people’s lives and to help family, patients, and friends to rise to higher levels of oral and overall well-being. We are likely the only professionals who genuinely become excited when a patient returns for a second appointment after avoiding dental services for 20 years! Our passions for mastering effective communication skills, identifying disease sequela, and retaining natural dentition demonstrates how our profession contributes so much more than just “cleaning teeth.”

Now in its third year, the Heart to Hands Award cherishes the opportunity to focus on the dedication, passion, and positive change three dental hygienists bring to our unique profession. It is an honor to share their enthusiastic stories and shine a light on how abundantly hygienists contribute to the optimal health and total body wellness of those they serve.

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Ann E. Spolarich, RDH, PhD, FSCDH

When a person becomes very ill, he or she often receives support with life’s most basic activities and needs—bathing, dressing, mental health services, spiritual support, and even getting out of bed. How often is dental hygiene integral to specialized care?

Ann E. Spolarich, PhD, RDH, FSCDH, is employed in the Advanced Care Clinic at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health in Mesa, Arizona. Her patients frequently cry with relief after meeting Ann, because other dental providers unable to manage their complex medical conditions have turned them away. Ann views the well-documented systemic benefits of oral hygiene as essential to overall health and well-being. She recognizes that serving these patients can be complicated, based on their medical complexities and physical limitations, and yet she believes serving them is a personal and professional gift.

Video: Ann E. Spolarich, RDH, PhD, FSCDH
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Watch Ann’s winning video in the online version of this article at rdhmag.com.

Ann originally studied dental hygiene as a preliminary step to becoming a physician, but after working in hospital dentistry, she realized how important this field and her experience was to her patients’ overall health. She received a Master of Science in dental hygiene in 1988, followed by a doctorate in physiology in 1996, both while clinically practicing. When asked why she chose to complete these degrees, she responded, “The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, which helped me to become a better clinician.”

Patients at the Advanced Care Clinic are referred by hospitals and private practices. Ann starts an average clinic day with a 40-minute huddle with dentists and staff to discuss the day’s patients and any potential medical or treatment challenges. She reviews the previous day’s records and simultaneously educates students working on-site. The clinic serves patients with dementia, cancer, organ transplants, rare genetic conditions, and intellectual disabilities. These patients struggle to find dental professionals qualified or willing to care for them. Even so, Ann believes “people who are medically complex can be managed effectively.”

Her role is challenging for two reasons: her patient’s medical intricacies are significant, and then intensified when coupled with the emotions related to their inability to function. Ann considers herself privileged to learn from, listen to, counsel, and support her patients. Her career is a poignant and inspiring testament to her dedication to assist those in need. Ann is changing lives, overcoming challenges, restoring oral health, and providing support in every way possible. She exemplifies the passionate heart of a dental hygiene clinician with the determination of a change agent wanting to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Fortunately for us all, Ann excels at both!

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Whitney DiFoggio, RDH, BS

Many dental hygienists experience excitement and anticipation while awaiting the news that they have graduated. This is followed by added enthusiasm when they are notified that they have passed their boards and may legally practice. But Whitney wanted to begin educating people on oral health as soon as possible, so she leveraged social media and found an audience quickly after graduation. Whitney started a YouTube channel that bears the moniker Teeth Talk Girl. By posting educational and instructional videos about the basics of oral hygiene, she grew her community of followers into the thousands. More important than the number of followers is how engaged the community is with Whitney and each other. Some say she’s inspired them to learn how to floss. Others say they hadn’t been to the dentist in years, but after looking at her content, have made an appointment.

A logical question might be, “Why does Whitney have a talent and passion for video?” Like some new graduates, Whitney viewed dental hygiene as a path to secure another career. But it was her zeal for acting that helped her make her distinctive mark on our profession. Originally, Whitney considered pursuing dentistry, but realized she loved acting more, and needed a flexible day job to pursue that love. TV acting in Chicago PD for a year allowed Whitney to use her artistic talents and oral health expertise to improve the lives of YouTube watchers. These people are unconventional “digital patients” who appreciate the opportunity to view videos on oral health and to receive responses provided by a licensed dental professional. Whitney enjoys video as her preferred medium because it allows her to feature different subjects with broad and long-lasting appeal.

Video: Whitney DiFoggio, RDH, BS
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Watch Whitney’s winning video in the online version of this article at rdhmag.com.

If you browse Whitney’s videos, you’ll notice why her messaging is impactful. Her short video “How to survive dental x-rays” offers implementable suggestions for patients who are challenged by holding sensors in their mouths. The video is professional, informative, and positive in nature, and most importantly, addresses a common patient complaint with kindness and compassion. Whitney’s viewers comment on how thoughtful, understanding, and beneficial her instructions are to improving their oral health.

For better or worse, many consumers are trusting the internet with their questions and apprehensions. Whitney’s new style of online oral health education is transporting her teachings to digital followers in need of dental direction. Along with other YouTube influencers on medical topics, Whitney is striving to combat internet misinformation with approachable, credible, and implementable content. Whitney is a powerful example of a resourceful dental hygienist who is willing to take a less traditional path to lead people to oral health.

We all need to remember to learn from the past and embrace the future. Whitney has embraced, navigated and succeeded in reaching thousands of people who might otherwise have never pursued communication with a dental professional, let alone making the leap to a live, in-office dental visit. Thanks to Whitney, their future is now.

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Alicia Murria, RDH

At a time when Alicia was using dental hygiene conferences as a means of adding energy to her career, she and a friend took a walk outside the 2017 ADHA annual meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. They had some money between them, and decided to give it away to a few of the homeless individuals nearby. At a conference the year before, Alicia had seen homeless individuals just outside the exhibit hall and had given them samples she’d received on the last day of the meeting. As we all know, exhibitors are generous in distributing their products to dental professionals rather than returning them to the office. And Alicia saw this generosity as a way to help those in need.

Because of these experiences, in September 2017, Alicia founded Hygienists for Humanity, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is “to connect underserved communities and individuals experiencing homelessness with quality oral hygiene products and services.” The organization’s initial focus was on providing care during dental hygiene conferences, although it has since evolved to allow Hygienists for Humanity members to organize care at other locations throughout the year. Alicia has developed valuable contacts and resources from dental convention exhibitors and participants. Her leadership and foresight provide a unique opportunity for dental professionals to serve underserved communities.

Video: Alicia Murria, RDH
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Watch Alicia’s winning video in the online version of this article at rdhmag.com.

As a little girl, Alicia was known to her family as “sugar bear.” She is a dental hygienist who loves sweets, and those who know her well believe the name accurately describes her disposition! Her family had few financial resources when she was growing up, and unfortunately, her oral health suffered because of it. However, she was treated kindly at public oral health clinics and her positive experiences made Alicia consider becoming a dentist. But she chose dental hygiene instead and is actively pursuing a master’s degree in public health. Like other dental hygienists, Alicia’s compassion drove her to improve the oral health of those less fortunate.

Since its founding, Hygienists for Humanity has executed two missions, donating oral, personal and feminine hygiene products to hundreds of recipients, while also providing oral health screenings. These screenings helped volunteers connect the recipients with affordable dental services in the area. The first mission was held on August 4, 2018, in Washington D.C., and the second in Springfield, Missouri. Supplementary missions are planned for Boston, Massachusetts, Louisville, Kentucky, and Grapevine, Texas, later this year.

On what the future holds, Alicia states, “We hope to grow our organization and have missions to reach more people. While we currently provide screenings, referrals, and oral hygiene/personal hygiene products, our vision is to have a community service event that surrounds each dental professional conference where dental hygienists can volunteer their services to the public. This is just the beginning and I trust the process.” Alicia is the ultimate optimist, with passion to spare!

There is commonality in all three of this year’s Philips/RDH Heart to Hands winners—each initially chose another direction and yet found dental hygiene as the most absolute conduit to professional and personal fulfillment. Each has a unique story and path, yet all three epitomize commitment, dedication and tremendous passion for our profession.

The ceremony

The winners and other participants will be honored in a celebration hosted by Philips and RDH magazine at the American Dental Hygienists’ Association annual session on Friday, June 21, between 5:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

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