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I watched Dion walk slowly into my classroom for her first tutoring session. She held her hands clamped tightly over her mouth, dropping them only to introduce herself, and then immediately bringing them back up to cover her face as before.
If I were pressed to pinpoint a moment in time when my interest in dentistry was born, it was on the day that I met Dion. When I began undergraduate studies at Duke University in the fall of 2007, dentistry was not my focus. I aspired to help save the planet: “one tree at a time.” Encouraged by my earlier research experience in environmental and materials science, I chose to pursue dual degrees in civil engineering and environmental policy.
My perspective on the study of environmental science shifted from trees to humans in the spring of my first year at Duke when I attended a seminar given by Doctor Marie Lynn Miranda, founding director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative (CEHI). At the core of Dr. Miranda’s presentation was a discussion of children’s special vulnerabilities to environmental contaminants, especially in minority and low income populations. Dr. Miranda demonstrated clear ties between congenital deformities in children and the sinister toxins that are so pervasive in much of our food, water and air remnants of industrial and agricultural chemicals used to “improve” the quality of our lives. I came away from that talk with the reinforced understanding that, not only did our environment need protection from us, but that we had created a toxic environment from which we needed protection. CEHI was taking substantial steps one kid at a time toward protecting children from those environmental hazards and I wanted to be a part of that process. I joined CEHI as a research assistant and volunteered as a community liaison via Project Child, a CEHI subsidiary. In my capacity as a research assistant, I gathered and analyzed data reflecting dietary patterns in young mothers, pregnant women, and children in the Durham community. Through Project Child, I tutored highrisk children in afterschool programs and educated local families about environmental hazards that could affect their children’s health.
I began at Project Child on a Monday in early February of 2008. Dion was my first student. She was a shy child with sad brown eyes and possessed of a wisdom well beyond her eight years. Just a few days before Dion’s arrival at Project Child, I had spoken to her mother at a community meeting about enrolling her children into the tutoring program she was initially reluctant to do so. It took some convincing, but to my delight, all three were enrolled and ready to learn.
Dion and her family had immigrated to the United States from Guyana six weeks earlier. She was born with a cleft palate and had undergone surgical repair during the first year of her life. She barely survived a serious postsurgical infection and, as a result, her mother, fearing that she would lose her child, refused to bring her back to the clinic for further treatment. Now, almost eight years later, Dion was still suffering the consequences of that decision. Her teeth were badly misaligned and her speech was difficult to understand. Her mother’s remorse was evident whenever she spoke of her daughter’s condition.
I tutored Dion and her siblings twice weekly over the next three years and came to know the family well. And so, in June 2008 when Dion’s mom told me that she made contact with the Duke Cleft and Craniofacial Team, I was elated.
Following her initial evaluation, Dion began regular sessions with an orthodontist and speech therapist in July.
When I graduated from Duke in May, Dion had been undergoing treatment for almost three years. During that time I was privileged to witness the positive changes, slow but sure, in her appearance, speech,and confidence. I was truly inspired by what I saw and made the decision that, although I was graduating with a degree in engineering, I would someday pursue a career in dentistry.
With my goal in sight, I have studied and trained for 3 years to learn about each of the different aspects and specialties of dentistry. I have kept an open mind throughout dental school, but I have come to realize that what inspired me to strive for a career in dentistry now interests me more than ever. My aspiration is to become a orthodontist dedicating myself to the compassionate care of my patients and to bringing about positive change in their lives. I have been striving for the opportunity to give a young girl like Dion a different path in life by changing her appearance and speech, ultimately giving her the confidence to succeed no matter what she chooses to do.
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