From a Dead-End Street in Barrio Obrero to a Dental Entrepreneur Woman

In Health by Karina Valentin

As a child growing up in Barrio Obrero, an impoverished and underserved area of Puerto Rico, I seldom visited the dentist. My mother, a single parent, believed there was no need to visit the dentist unless pain was present. So strongly held was her belief that, at times, she went up to 5 years without a visit. While her avoidance partly stemmed from fear and a lack of pain, I’m confident its origins were rooted in a limited understanding of oral health. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was never told to brush my teeth though I had rampant caries and was on a high-sugar diet. In fact, I doubt we even owned floss.

It’s important for me to point out that my mother was not at fault for my poor oral hygiene. My entire community suffered from inadequate access to care and poor quality of care. Most of the families in Barrio Obrero live below the poverty level and unemployment is high. Drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma are common, yet treatment services are scarce. In spite of the challenges that plague the people in my hometown, they are still the most selfless, kind, and passionate group I have ever known. To witness them suffer is devastating, and it is what fuels my passion for service.

The University of Chicago

I knew my path to dental school would be challenging. After all, I’d be the first doctor in the family and I knew they could offer only limited support for my education. After graduating high school, I attended the University of Chicago with a full scholarship and obtained my B.A. in Psychology. Interestingly enough, my mother enrolled in college around this time as well so I felt like we were embarking on this journey toward higher education together.

At the University, a new world opened up for me and I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I remember feeling I was at a disadvantage because no one in my family had shown me the ropes and I strived to catch up with my peers. Although I struggled initially, I was given many outlets to gain experience and I took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. In my four years there, I co-founded the pre-dental student organization, shadowed different dentists in the area, and attended two pre-dental summer programs: SMDEP (now SHPEP) at Columbia University and CSEP at Marquette University. These experiences gave me insight into the dental profession and a greater appreciation for the field.

Roosevelt University Chicago

After graduating in 2013, I went on to complete a masters program in biology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. This second degree was what I needed to gain a better understanding of the sciences and more confidence in my abilities. I hoped dental schools would see these extra two years as signs of perseverance and passion—and I was right! I applied a year later and was accepted to four schools and chose to attend Western University of Health Sciences. I’m a proud member of the Class of 2020!

I’ve grown so much since starting dental school. Before starting school, I’d been so focused on academics that I hadn’t spent enough time improving my communication and leadership skills, which are also paramount for a great dentist. Organizations like ASDA and ADEA have given me the opportunity to develop those skills and also opened my eyes to see how much larger the dental world is beyond the classroom. Though the information we learn in dental school is obviously essential to our career, it’s experiences like the ones we get from Annual Session that motivate dental students to continue to fight for their profession.

This year I was elected District 11 Trustee at ASDA’s Annual Session and it has been one of the best things to happen to me since starting dental school. I’m so grateful to be a part of ASDA on this scale because it gives me the opportunity to work with national and local leaders to implement even greater positive change to organized dentistry. Our time in dental school is limited which is why I want to make the most of this opportunity.

As a second-year student, I’ve recently started assisting at the dental clinic. I’m frequently asked to translate from Spanish, and when I do, it’s such a powerful moment to see the look of relief on a patient’s face after introducing myself in their native language. It wasn’t until I translated for the first time that I fully understood just how much a language barrier could contribute to a patient’s discomfort and confusion. I value most that ability to make deep personal connections with my patients. Without a language barrier, we are free to share stories and laughter in the dental chair.

I used to be nervous about how others perceived me, mostly because I felt like my background was so different from everyone else’s. Now I see that my experience has shaped me and given me compassion for others, a bilingual education, and an understanding of oral health-related barriers confronting the poor.

Although my family is miles away in Puerto Rico, I see patients every day who resemble my own family. I see patients just like my mom with a fear of the dentist or like my grandmother with type-2 diabetes and a full set of dentures. Working with patients like these is important to me because it gives me the chance to close the oral health disparity gap by empowering them through proper oral health education.

It’s crazy to think that a girl who grew up on a dead-end street in Barrio Obrero, who didn’t brush and had no concept of dental floss or oral hygiene, is now a second-year dental student on the cover of Dental Entrepreneur. To get to this point is an accomplishment in itself. As for what’s in store for the future, it’s hard to say for sure. After graduation, I’d like to complete a GPR or work in a clinic that focuses on treating those with limited access to care. As I move forward in my dental path, I will never lose sight of the ultimate goal: to empower my patients through education and improve the effectiveness of preventive care for vulnerable populations, like that of Barrio Obrero.