Cathie Anderson

Carrington, Sac City students offer preventive dental work – at no or low cost

Orangevale resident Celeste Vantine credited a student in Carrington College’s dental hygiene program with saving her life: “I didn’t know I had diabetes. I wouldn’t have known, had she not taken my blood pressure and made me go get my meds.”

The doctor had Vantine get some blood work done, she said, and discovered her diabetes.

Georgiann Keyes, a New Jersey transplant who makes her home in Sacramento, tells a similar story. The student hygienist told Keyes that her blood pressure was too high to perform work and told her to return after she had consulted her doctor. Keyes did so and discovered that her medication needed adjustment.

Over the course of a semester, a pile of thank-you notes from patients such as Keyes and Vantine will mount at both Carrington College and at Sacramento City College, where dental hygiene students diagnose and treat people from all around the Sacramento region. While Carrington charges no fees, Sac City charges nominal prices if the patients can afford them.

“We see people who have insurance, but maybe they’ve maximized their cleanings for the year and they want additional cleanings for the year,” said Brenda Kunz, the dental hygiene program director at Carrington. “Maybe they needed additional periodontal treatments that are out of their price range in a private practice, so they come here for that part of their treatment. We see patients that don’t have insurance. We see homeless patients.”

Keyes and Vantine both said they sought out Carrington because they didn’t have insurance. Over at Sac City’s Dental Health Clinic, administrative assistant Barbara Beale said, many patients fall into the uninsured category.

Katie Zdor, a student in Sacramento City’s dental hygiene program, had been a dental assistant for nine years before she decided to return to college and become a hygienist. She felt comfortable with the tools and the classwork, she said, but she was nervous about the patient interaction.

“You never know who you’re going to get and what their medical history is like or what their condition is,” said Zdor, who will graduate next year. “Now I’ve had patients with complicated medical histories and ones with not-so-complicated ones, and I’m just like, ‘Bring it on. I can take care of it.’ 

Indeed, patients have told Zdor they’ve never had a better cleaning than those offered at Sac City’s clinic. Both Vantine and Keyes said the same of their services at Carrington, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in Sacramento.

Carrington graduate Taryn Myers, licensed as a hygienist last April, vividly recalled one patient from her student days. Her teeth were badly stained, Myers said, and she wouldn’t smile. When she talked, she would cover her mouth. Together with her instructors, Myers diagnosed her dental issues and came up with a treatment plan.

“When she left my chair on her last appointment,” Myers said, “she had the biggest smile on her face and the brightest, whitest smile because I was able to get all the stain off. And that just made my day.”

Patients and faculty told me that treatments will take longer than those at a dentist’s office. While initial consultations and X-rays may take an hour or less, they said, patients should set aside a few hours if they have cleanings.

Students are learning as they go, faculty said, so they will encounter challenges and need time to confer with instructors. Also, instructors will be inspecting their work to ensure it’s up to snuff.

In both dental programs, students use state-of-the-art equipment. They have supervising dentists who prescribe anesthesia, review X-rays and work with the students on how to advise patients requiring medical or restorative dental treatment. Sacramento City’s Dental Health Clinic offers services from both its dental hygiene and dental assisting students. Only dental hygiene students see patients in Carrington’s clinic.

Students from Sacramento City’s nearly 50-year-old program typically don’t have problems landing jobs, said Melissa Fellman, the dental hygiene program coordinator, noting that 17 of 24 graduates last spring already are employed. Carrington’s job placement rate for dental hygiene graduates stands at 79 percent, according to the college’s website.

In this region, dental assistants can earn anywhere from $96 to $200 a day, said Tammie Lane, a dental assisting professor at Sac City, while dental hygienists may earn as much as $400 a day.

The faculty at both colleges choked up as they discussed the tremendous amount of perseverance and growth they see in students over the years. Fellman said she’s astounded every year to learn of the barriers students overcome in order to get an education.

“I’ve even had a student come who was homeless, living out of her car but still came to school because she knew she needed an education,” Fellman said. “I had another student who didn’t have money to buy food.”

At Carrington, student Samantha McDermott told me that she was four weeks into her dental hygiene program when her baby needed emergency surgery. She thought about quitting, but she and her partner decided that her education was crucial to the future, and they alternated time with the baby to make school work.

Perhaps such challenges produce the special brand of empathy that Keyes and Vantine say they have received from every student who has met with them. Fellman said she had a student last year who cared so much for patients that she struggled with giving injections.

“She just got nervous and anxious,” Fellman said. “All semester, I worked with this particular student and in the end, on her last injection, she was confident and knew exactly what she was doing, and she gave me a big hug and thanked me for the patience and understanding. It just took her a little longer than other students to feel like she had grasped the skill.”