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Fixing teeth and lives at CDA Cares

Dr. Cynthia Brattesani of San Francisco wrote a first-person account of her experience at CDA Cares. She is an ADA Delegate, past chair of the ADA Council on Membership and an active volunteer in her community.

Image: Triage team: Dr. Brattesani, center, confers with Dr. John Pisacane and Dr. Christy Rollofson on Aug. 24.
Triage team: Dr. Brattesani, center, confers with Dr. John Pisacane and Dr. Christy Rollofson on Aug. 24.

On the two-hour drive home from the CDA Cares event in Sacramento, after 12 hours on my feet along with 1,650 other volunteers and dental professionals, I had time to reflect on how volunteering can be a life-altering experience. My mind raced, filled with the memory of endless lines of people stretching across the Cal Expo parking lot, waiting in the early morning darkness for their chance to get dental care when the doors opened at 5:30 a.m. Some were standing in line from 4 a.m., worried that they would miss their only chance at dental care in years.

Every day in my office, I give patients my full attention and best care possible; but this day was different. This day was about more than fixing teeth; the volunteers at Cal Expo were helping to fix lives.

There is no better way to describe what happened at CDA Cares than by telling about two patients. Linda (patients’ names have been changed to protect privacy) had camped out for two days. She was beautiful—until she smiled. At 26 years old, all of her teeth had been destroyed by meth. She told me the horrendous story of her life. She started on drugs at age 13 after her parents abandoned her. To survive on the streets, she used drugs. When she saw that I was interested in her story, she shared the good news that she had been “clean” for 31 days. She said, “I know that this is my next step. I need to fix my smile so that I can get a job.”

Even though I was a virtual stranger to her, Linda wanted me to know how important this day was in her life. I told her that everyone on her treatment team that day was rooting for her to stay clean and succeed in her goal, not only for herself but for her six children. I hope that my words made a difference, that they would inspire her to keep trying and know that people care about her situation. At CDA Cares, this moment between Linda and me in the triage area had nothing to do with teeth, but everything to do with dentistry. As dentists, we sat side by side and talked with people about their emotions, about how they got to where they are now, and why they were desperate to change direction. None felt they could reach their new destination without the dental procedures that they could receive for free that day.

Another patient, Brenda, had piercing green eyes and dark skin. She was swollen and terrified about the possibility of having two teeth extracted. She needed emotional support as I persuaded her to continue with her treatment. Hours later, as I left the Cal Expo, I heard someone yelling, “Doctor! Doctor!” Brenda had finished getting her extractions and searched for me to thank me for my encouraging words. Through the gauze still in her mouth, she said she felt better already. And you know what? Although I was tired and going home, after I spoke with Brenda, I felt better, too.

After building my dental practice for 23 years, performing dentistry purely for the sake of improving someone’s life is exhilarating. Some of that energy gets lost in the everyday aspects of trying to run a business. Yes, I am focused on my patients, but the patients in my office are not dragging themselves out of the depths of despair. At CDA Cares, teeth are the barrier between these patients and a life of purpose. They need their teeth fixed to get a job, feed their family and build self-esteem.

I only got to interact with a few of the 2,026 people who received dental care in those two days, but the day fueled my enthusiasm for volunteering. It may even make me healthier. In a recent article about volunteerism, Steven Post, Ph.D., noted, “Numerous studies have shown that volunteers report increased happiness, better physical health, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.” Besides helping others, by volunteering, we also help ourselves.

As I walked into Cal Expo that day, before I even checked in, people were thanking me in advance. I didn’t even do anything yet. At the end of the day, I felt like I should thank them for making me feel so important and energized. I know that I will volunteer again because changing even a small part of the world for the better is addicting. Author Tony Robbins summed it up best when he said, “It is not what we get. But who we become, what we contribute ... that gives meaning to our lives.”