CHAPEL HILL, NC - The day may be gray and rainy, but a green dinosaur and blue dragon can usually brighten things up considerably.
The smiling stuffed animals always make an appearance when UNC dental students Maggie Fetner and Jessica Oliver talk to children about the importance of good oral health.
For these children, who are patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, this information is crucial.
"Good dental care is especially important to pediatric cancer patients,” says Stuart Gold, MD, chief of the division of pediatric hematology and oncology and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “When these patients are undergoing cancer therapy, they are more susceptible to dental problems due to side effects from their treatment such as dry mouth, mouth sores or inflamed tissue. Poor dentition can also be a source of infection in these immunocompromised patients. Through their outreach, Maggie and Jessica are alerting parents to potential dental issues and teaching our young patients the importance of good dental care in a low-key and fun way."
Fetner and Oliver visit the hospital’s pediatric hematology/oncology and inpatient clinics once a week to provide education on oral hygiene, nutrition and preventive measures. They were selected as 2010-11 N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellows, a program focusing on community service, leadership development and reflection. Fellows receive a stipend of $3,000 for their project; the Dental Foundation of North Carolina provided support for the dental education project.
Carol Haggerty, DDS, clinical associate professor in the School of Dentistry’s department of diagnostic sciences and general dentistry, and Sandi Jarr, RN, MSN, supportive care nurse consultant with the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, are the project’s advisers.
On a recent day, Fetner and Oliver met Elijah Cummings and his mother, Christina Lowery. Elijah, at almost 3 years old, is being treated for a blood disorder. Fetner hands Elijah an oversized toothbrush, and he immediately knows what to do. “Good job,” Fetner says to him, watching as he brushes the dragon’s teeth. "You did a good job brushing them."
As Elijah concentrates on giving both the dragon and dinosaur a thorough cleaning, Fetner checks with his mom, asking if he has experienced any dental issues. She then asks to briefly examine Elijah’s teeth, maybe apply a little fluoride.
“Look at my blue hands,” she says to Elijah, showing him her dental gloves. “Did you bring your teeth with you today?”
The Schweitzer fellowship will last through the end of the academic year, but Fetner and Oliver are hopeful it can continue. “We are adamant about the project being sustainable, going on for more than this year,” says Oliver. “We hope dental students will carry this through so other patients can benefit from what we are doing. Educationally, this project is a reminder of the intersection of oral health and overall health."