UCSF dental students to volunteer at CDA Cares Stockton

Soon after the last classes let out at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry on Friday, Oct. 14, 76 dental school students will board a bus for the 90-minute ride to Stockton.

Talking, studying and singing to pass the time, they'll leave behind the shorelines, bridges and hills of the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area and enter the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the surrounding Central Valley farmland. Their destination is the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, where over the next two days they will volunteer an approximate combined 1,300 hours at the CDA Cares event, assisting dentists in providing oral health care to a population in dire need of services.

Stockton will be the first CDA Cares clinic for 40 of these students, but others, including Grace Zhu, Dean Gretzinger and Eli Almaz, have one to seven events' worth of experience behind them. Together with the others students they have signed up for every session — from the first on Saturday morning to the last on Sunday evening, after which students will board the bus for the return trip to San Francisco and a fresh week of classes ahead.

Some student volunteers will work chairside, assisting dentists with fillings, root canals and extractions to relieve pain and infection, and a limited number of dentures and temporary partial dentures. Other dental students will assist hygienists with cleanings, volunteer in central supply and sterilization and help operate the computers in the X-ray service area. Still others will escort patients and serve as translators and general volunteers.

Drawing on past experience

Grace Zhu, a second-year dental student, will spend both days volunteering as a dental assistant in the operative and pediatric departments. Zhu is traveling to Stockton well-prepared to assist, having gleaned some insights at CDA Cares in Ventura in April. She reported being shocked to learn the lengths that some individuals went to attend the clinic to receive dental care.

Zhu spoke of a patient at the Ventura clinic who was distressed before being seated because he thought he would need to make another two-hour trip to come back the next day. "After hearing this individual's experience, I saw the value in treating as many people as possible," Zhu said. "As assistants, we can speed up the patient visit by having a clear understanding of how CDA Cares is run. This includes recognizing where certain supplies are, following proper setup and breakdown of chairs and knowing how the patient escort system works."

CDA Cares Stockton will be Dean Gretzinger's third event as a volunteer. Gretzinger is in year three of dental school and organized the UCSF students' trip to Ventura. He is again organizing his fellow students for the Stockton event, where he will assist in the restorative department. He and Zhu share a similar understanding of what it takes to be prepared, based on their prior experience.

"At CDA Cares Fresno I learned the sheer volume of people that can and need to be seen, and I saw that efficiency and communication, including being able to contact and locate students, are key to successful events," Gretzinger said, quickly adding that his classmates "bring along their own internal motivation and don't require extra reminders and guidance to get to their volunteer sessions."

"In short, when every department works in harmony, more people get the care they need — it really is as simple as that!" said Gretzinger.

Building relationships

Ventura was the first event UCSF dental school students attended as a group. Dr. Sheila Brear, associate dean of academic affairs at UCSF, said students and alumni have volunteered over the years, but they primarily "saw each other and waved." For CDA Cares Fresno, Brear invited students, faculty and as many alumni as she could find, which resulted in a group dinner on the first night of the event. She began to think about Ventura, including the logistics of getting there (a six-hour drive from UCSF) and where everyone would stay, and she then thought of alumni who might be willing to house the students and be assisted by them at the clinic.

"The idea just grew from there," Brear said, with the busses becoming a new standard for transportation to the events — a way to build the cohesiveness of the group and just plain have fun.

The first organized event also proved a positive bonding experience for students and alumni, particularly alumni in active practice. "I am hoping to see even stronger relationships formed at the next CDA Cares event," Brear said.

The heart of service

Community service factors largely into the dental students' motivation to volunteer. Stockton will be the seventh clinic for volunteer and third-year dental student Eli Almaz, who said he has been humbled since the first CDA Cares in 2012 to help make a positive impact on underserved populations in the hosting communities.

"The biggest takeaway for me is the heart of service in our volunteers," Almaz said. "The dedication and tirelessness of everybody at CDA Cares keeps the momentum going. Reminding ourselves of the value of community service and giving back is key," he said. Almaz has signed up to assist in the restorative department on both days. "I feel a unique, indescribable emotion when I see a patient's smile and happiness restored."

Zhu remembers being impressed by the scale of volunteers at the Ventura clinic, her first. "When you looked out into the room, all you could see was a sea of blue and pink gowns," she said. "It was inspiring to see so many professionals and others in the dental community spend their weekend providing care to people in need."

"The clinics have helped students really understand how being a dentist can help others," Gretzinger said. "Traveling to Ventura with my classmates showed me how compassionate my peers are."

Learning from professionals

Volunteering at CDA Cares also offers a learning component.

Almaz said he has learned from experienced professionals many new skills and techniques that he has since adopted and applied as a student provider at UCSF. "Dentists I assisted at past clinics have stayed in touch and become my mentors and friends," he said. "It is always a pleasure to meet with them and coordinate working together at future events."

Especially rewarding to Zhu at past events was the opportunity to interact with dentists, dental assistants and hygienists as well as students from other schools. "Experienced members in the dental field were eager to share their stories and knowledge," she said.

The hands-on volunteer work can particularly benefit first- and second-year students who, prior to the clinics, have had limited contact with patients, according to Gretzinger. "Now, the students can visualize themselves doing this in just a few years," he said.

"As a first-year dental student, most of my days consisted of hours spent in lectures and sim lab," said Zhu. "With so much on our plate, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of things. CDA Cares Ventura reminded me of the main reason I choose a career in dentistry — to take care of patients. We're all united by our common goal of improving lives, and by working together at events like CDA Cares we're able to accomplish this together as a team."

Any individual who has graduated from one of the UCSF dental programs is invited and welcome to join the UCSF volunteer group. "Any dental student can find a place to help out," Brear said.

Since 2012, CDA Cares has provided $14.6 million in oral health care services to 17,965 people. Nearly 1,000 dental students have volunteered at CDA Cares since the first event.

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Among the more than 14,000 volunteers who have generously donated their time and skills to CDA Cares are couples who enjoy working side by side at the events hosted by the CDA Foundation.

After a successful event in Ventura in April, CDA Cares returns to the Central Valley in October. CDA Cares Stockton will take place Oct. 15-16 at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds and provide for a population in dire need of oral health care.

Dental students who volunteer at CDA Cares events work in central supply, sterilization and chairside and help operate the computers in the X-ray area, escort patients and serve as general volunteers. Nearly 800 dental students have volunteered at CDA Cares. Since 2012, CDA Cares clinics have provided $9.2 million in oral health care services to 11,901 patients.