A professor and student-hygienist smile under their masks as they hold up a toothbrush and dental model.
Community | 3/21/2024

Frames and Fluoride: Dental Hygiene and Optometry Students Team Up to Serve Worcester Kids

By Maaha Rafique

A professor and student-hygienist smile under their masks as they hold up a toothbrush and dental model.

A professor and student-hygienist smile under their masks as they hold up a toothbrush and dental model.
A professor and student-hygienist smile under their masks as they hold up a toothbrush and dental model.

For the fifth year in a row, students on the Worcester campus gave free eye and oral health exams to children.

In the Lincoln Square building of the Worcester campus of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), an 8-year-old boy had just discovered that he needed glasses. With the MCPHS 10 Optical retail store just steps away, this posed no problem. An optometry student led him over to another room, where frames awaited him. The first two he picked out were different shades of blue.

“Is blue your favorite color?” the student asked him.

“My second favorite,” he corrected her. In the end, he selected a stylish pair of dark blue frames.

The boy was one of about 17 children, ages 5 to 12, visiting the campus for complimentary eye and dental exams. Every year since 2019, dental hygiene and optometry students at MCPHS Worcester have dedicated a day in February, during the annual break for public schools, to conduct exams on children from the Rainbow Child Development Center. Under the supervision of professors, students practice their skills while the children receive care and free transportation to the MCPHS campus from the Rainbow Center.

Nancy Thibault, Strategic Communications & Development Manager at the Rainbow Center, said the program initially began with children in the center’s preschool, but expanded to include those in the after-school program due to increased enrollment.

"The dental hygiene and optometry students could not be more professional and understanding. They're so warm and nurturing,” she said.

Tooth Care For Tots

At about 11 a.m., a new group of children settled in for checkups in the dental hygiene clinic. Seated in examination chairs, they wore special glasses to protect their eyes from the bright light and liquid splatter. Dental hygiene students laughed with the children, speaking to them gently. "I'm going to clean your teeth so you can go home looking pretty,” one student-hygienist quipped.

At other times, the students demonstrated proper brushing methods on stuffed animals and plastic models of teeth before asking the kids to try it themselves. Robinah Nabukeera, BS ‘24, said the activities helped provide children with oral health education, and as a practitioner, she wanted to mentally put herself in their shoes.

"We try to extend empathy. We know a kid is probably tired from having to open their mouth for all that time. It helps to say, ‘Hey, I'm with you,’” Nabukeera said.

Elsewhere in the clinic, other students enrolled in the 16-month Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene program patiently waited their turn at the chairs. Some had previously participated in volunteer events with kids, but others were new to having children as patients. There was a nervous atmosphere of excitement as they discussed the vagaries of pediatric care.

“A child’s dentition is really different from adults. Their mouths are so much smaller,” Lily Chen, BS ’24, said. “When I try to brush their teeth, I can’t help thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope I don't hurt them.’”

"There's a lot more you need to do beforehand to make them feel comfortable,” said Shameya Vass, BS ‘24.

One of those things included switching the names for common dental equipment to more kid-friendly euphemisms. They rattled off a list of them: Mr. Thirsty, tooth counter, and squirt gun.

“It’s a lot of adapting,” Vass added.

Sights for Sore Eyes

Downstairs, a similar scene unfolded as a smaller group of kids underwent eye examinations as part of the other half of the day’s events. In one room, students projected clips from the animated movie “Sing” on the wall to entertain a young patient during his examination.

Like their dental hygiene counterparts, optometry students brainstormed ways to make usual examination procedures more kid-friendly.

“You can learn the material in class, but applying it is harder than I thought it would be. We had to change some of the things we normally do, like holding up a popsicle stick with stickers on it instead of holding up fingers to test peripheral vision,” said Kelsie Wilson, OD ‘26. “We turn it into a game, challenging them about how fast they can do it.”

Like the exams, glasses were provided free of charge to the young patients who needed them. Each child also left with a brand-new electric toothbrush and memories of a busy but exciting day.

“When they leave, the children say they no longer find the dentist or eye doctor scary. They tell their parents they had a great time,” Thibault said.