Where I Had My First Experience With Dentistry

In Inspiration, My Story by Theresa Sheppard

The Clock Tower. Oakdale’s Largest Historic Landmark

I grew up in a small central California town called Oakdale, the “Cowboy Capitol of The World” to be exact!  I lived in a great neighborhood that was loaded with kids. We skated, rode bikes, had tree forts & made up countless games using something called “imagination”. We had no video games, computers, or cell phones, but we DID have INSTANT MESSAGING…… about dusk you would hear a mom call for a kid …. didn’t matter which mom, or which kid… we all got the message…. Time to head home. All in all, it was a great era to grow up.

My first experience with dentistry happened in that neighborhood, as I lived next door to a dental assistant. Opal was the first woman in dentistry that had an influence on me.

This statue is right in the center of town at the first & only signal we had up until about 25 years ago…. now we have 7!!!!!

My own dental journey began over 35 years ago as a Registered Dental Assistant. After 10 years as a chairside assistant, I made the move “up front” and I went on to manage general practices for over 25 years. As you can imagine, the face of dentistry changed dramatically within that period of time.

I went from treating patients without wearing gloves, to using lasers, oral cancer screenings, DNA testing & Ceric machines. The field of dentistry for women has exploded, as there are so many more women dentists.

As much as I love the clinical aspect of dentistry, I discovered that in administration, I had additional opportunities to increase my professional development. As office manager, I needed to become an expert in risk management protocol, accounts receivables & payables, insurance coding, billing and tracking, financial arrangements, budgets, OSHA, HR, HIPAA and numerous other tasks.

I enjoyed being a liaison between the doctor and the team. As a manager, I cared for the patient from the initial phone call to completion of treatment. I most enjoyed assisting in the case presentations. The Dentist would discuss treatment and options with the patient and I would assist by pulling up the patient’s x-rays, photos, period charting, etc. and review tooth by tooth.  I shared with them the systemic relationship that period has on total health and educated them on other diseases that contribute to poor health.

I then helped the patient to phase out their treatment and understand their insurance so they could get the maximum benefit. Very often I was thanked for the time I spent one on one because the patient had never had that kind of attention before.

I have held many positions in a practice, so I understand the challenges that each position faces. Being fortunate enough to have that unique perspective has helped me become a better leader and at the same time helped me discover a love of teaching.

It was during my time managing a general practice that I met the next woman in dentistry that would have a huge impact on my life, Leslie Canham. I hired Leslie to come into our office and provide OHSA & Infection Control training to the team. We soon discovered that we shared the same philosophy when it came to practice and personal ethics and standard of care. From those discussions, our friendship evolved and she was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my professional career. She introduced me to SCN and that amazing group of professionals. Approximately 15 years later, she is still my friend and mentor. At this point, I must also take a moment to give a shout out to Mike! I have known him almost as long, and have always been thankful for his valuable input, sense of humor and friendship.


Through Leslie, and organizations such as SCN, I have met so many amazing, powerful women in dentistry. There are too many to name, and I am thankful for all of you, but I would be remiss if I neglected to send some love to Linda Miles and Lois Banta. These two ladies have shoulders that are miles wide. I know this because I have used them many times. No matter what is going on in their business or their lives, these women always have time to listen, whether it be sharing joy, or wiping tears, and I am forever grateful.


My passion for dentistry and teaching merged when I became developer and director of Career Express Dental Assisting School. I loved seeing the excitement in my students as they discovered their love of dentistry. I am always thrilled when previous students tell me of their accomplishments, such as going on to hygiene school, entering the dental program in the US Army, and one of my very first students now teaches dental assisting in Texas. I am so proud of all of them!

After teaching dental assisting, I moved on to become a California Dental Board CE provider and Radiation Safety Course Provider.


It was then that I knew I wanted to take my teaching career further and, developed courses in insurance coding and billing, risk management, & HIPAA, however, my favorite course is a mouth-body connection, otherwise known as the oral systemic link. I have always loved educating my patients, and have had a long-time interest in the oral systemic link, but it wasn’t until a devastating illness with my best friend, did I make it my mission.

You see, what we all thought was a stubborn case of pneumonia, turned out to be stage 4 lung cancer and stage 2 lymphoma. No one could understand. How could this be? She had no risk factors. Were the doctors mistaken? No, tragically, they weren’t.

With great sorrow, I watched helpless, as my best friend, now weighing 92 lbs., was dying.

For the first time in our lives, there was nothing I could do for her. Most of the time she didn’t even know I was there. I found myself sitting by her bed for hours and hours, holding her hand. Afraid if I left, I would never see her again.

Sitting in her hospital room, I noticed that the orders on the whiteboard next to her bed had been changed. Listed under the Oral Care section, it said, “Take Partials out and clean.”

I could not believe it!!   She had a full set of beautiful teeth.   It shocked me that they were concerned about her partials, which she DID NOT have, but weren’t concerned about her teeth…. which she DID have.

I grabbed a red sharpie and scribbled over that statement on the board.

I pointed out this to the nurse. She apologized and said it would be corrected.

When I arrived the next day, the sign was still there…red marks and all. I pulled up Janet’s lips and what I saw was appalling!   WHO was providing her oral care? Obviously, NO one!   That was an inexcusable way to care for a patient, especially, in an ICU ward.   Needless to say, I didn’t remain quiet.  I know how important the oral systemic link is and wanted to do my part to give her a fighting chance.  Starting that minute, I provided her oral care myself and It didn’t take long until things were looking much better.

As I was looking after her, I started to reflect on other situations I had experienced during my dental career and two distinct cases came to mind.

While I was chairside assisting, one of our patients brought his elderly mother in. The nursing home had told him that she was reluctant to eat. When they investigated, they discovered that she had a broken

While I was chairside assisting, one of our patients brought his elderly mother in. The nursing home had told him that she was reluctant to eat.   When they investigated, they discovered that she had a broken tooth. What we saw when she arrived was completely disturbing.   This poor little lady had a lower removable partial that was so thickly covered in calculus, that “removable” was no longer descriptive term. What the staff at the nursing home had thought was a broken tooth was in actuality a large piece of broken calculus that was sharp & cutting her tongue.

No wonder she didn’t want to eat. Her son was livid at the overall condition of her mouth, as were we. Clearly, oral care was not being given in any form……….despite what the documentation in her chart said.

Most often, caregivers and nurses generally receive very little, if any, training on the oral systemic relation, or how to perform proper oral care. They are usually overworked and understaffed.

The oral systemic link is real and lack of oral care is a main contributor not only to minor infections such of the sinus or ear, but also serious diseases such as cardiac disease, diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. Neglect of these conditions can have life-changing consequences and even death … for all of us, but especially those in our most vulnerable population.

Mother Teresa said “It is not how much you do, but how much love you put into the doing that matters”

What started as my mission to care for Janet, has now become my mission to care for others. I share how we can come together to not only deliver optimal patient care but to improve the quality of life, and reduce suffering


The vast majority of healthcare professionals have not taken the time necessary to understand the Oral Systemic Link. It is not just a condition, but a HEALTHCARE CRISIS!!!!


Engaging with our communities is crucial. We must reach out and form partnerships with our medical peers, as well as facilities and organizations such as nursing homes, long-term care facilities, in-home caregivers organizations, schools, homeless shelters, Veterans organizations and such.


We must empower patients, their caregivers and the community to be more proactive with their health. An informed patient can take clearer control of their health and not only feel better but could reduce out of pocket expenses for office visits, hospital stays, and medication.

We can make a real difference… one life at a time. WE are the professionals, if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Theresa Sheppard, RDA / Oral Care Specialist / Trainer/ Speaker/ Consultant / Author