Last week we published a blog about Melissa Boyd, a former student and current faculty member of the Dental Hygiene program at Chattanooga State Community College. We met her at Expedition #800 in Columbia, Tennessee.
At that same clinic, we caught up with Dr. Hartly Varnell, the man who had a major hand in students of the college initially volunteering in 2008. Prior to working for Chattanooga State, Dr. Varnell had his own private practice.
Dr. Varnell is the former director of the dental hygiene department at Chattanooga State. Since 2008, he has been to three or four clinics a year. “When I started working with the students at Chattanooga State, dental hygiene students, I really became involved in the process for the patients and my students.”
Students in a variety of educational environments are required to do social outreach. To Dr. Varnell, Remote Area Medical was the ideal place for students to both gain experience fulfill social outreach requirements. “These young ladies have special needs. They get a chance to really learn with instructors available what it’s like to treat more than one person in a day.” In the classroom setting they usually just treat a person for half of a day. At the clinics, they get the opportunity to see multiple patients. Dr. Varnell feels that being around people in need is crucial to student development as well. “They get to see that these patients appreciate what they did.”
Another part of the RAM experience that amounts to good training for the students is the chance to administer anesthesia. In the state of Tennessee, dental hygienists can administer local anesthesia as long as they are certified. The dentists at our clinics will usually allow students to administer the anesthesia. “We certify these students during their time on campus, and they needed a place to be able to train more in that arena.” An added benefit for students is that they get to see what they do really works. “When they leave these environments, they’re confident that they can do the task.”
Dr. Varnell described the volunteer experience for a dental professional. “If they come here with the attitude that they are going to give something, that they’re coming here to serve people, they will walk away with a gift in their heart and soul that they didn’t expect.” He said he never comes to a clinic expecting that, but he never leaves without knowing that he has been blessed, and he loves knowing he has helped people.
We were privileged to learn of a story that really touched Dr. Varnell’s heart at a previous clinic. A young man came to the clinic whose teeth needed repair. He preferred to keep his teeth rather than have them extracted. During Triage, the first step for dental patients, Dr. Varnell told the young man that because his teeth were so damaged, extraction was the only viable option.
Later in the day, Dr. Varnell prepared for an extraction at a particular chair. As he approached the patient, he realized it was that very same man he had met earlier in Triage. “I could tell it bothered his heart knowing he was losing his teeth, but in the process of conversation I must have given him hope. I informed him that he could have a denture made that can look nice and be comfortable. You can have a fulfilling life with a smile.”
After the procedure they parted ways, and Dr. Varnell began working on other patients. Three or four hours passed, and Dr. Varnell felt there was someone standing behind him. He turned around and saw the young man from earlier. He handed Dr. Varnell a folded piece of paper. Inside, it said, “You are the kindest person I have ever met.” Dr. Varnell was taken aback. “Now that was a trophy! I took that trophy home in my heart.”
Dr. Varnell also pointed out that many current and former students will volunteer at clinics even when there is no instructor with them. “They won’t be able to do some of the tasks, but they will volunteer to clean up, set up, and assist the dentist. They come because they want to be here. It’s really a thrill to see.”
It is relationships like these which have been created and nurtured throughout the years that allow RAM to help patients in need, but also assist future medical professionals in making a difference in someone’s life. Working with RAM is an amazing experience! Until someone is there to witness the smiles and happy tears of patients, as well as volunteers, it’s hard to explain. The challenge has been put out: Make a difference in someone’s life today, tomorrow, and the next day! If you have the good fortune to have all that you need in life, pay it forward. I personally believe there is no feeling in the world that compares to knowing you affected someone’s life in a positive manner.