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The things they carie-d: Gaining real world experience through an immersive, interdisciplinary mission trip

FEATURED ARTICLE | March 23, 2017 | By Linda Paine Hughes, clinical assistant professor, University at Buffalo School of Nursing

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For the past three years, the University at Buffalo School of Nursing has joined the UB School of Dental Medicine as an interdisciplinary team in Appalachia to volunteer for a medical and dental mission weekend with Remote Area Medical (RAM). 

This highly respected volunteer organization is dedicated to providing free health care to Americans who are impoverished and underserved, emphasizing the delivery of compassionate and competent care.

They carried with them sneakers, worn or new; their trusty stethoscopes; scrubs (true blue); a song or two; and unshakeable curiosity and kindness.

On the most recent trip this February, nine senior undergraduate nursing students accepted the challenge and volunteered to participate in the RAM experience in Knoxville, Tennessee. Traveling 1,366 miles round trip and returning to Buffalo without missing classes, these students are the embodiment of professionalism and dedication to community service, quality care and hands-on learning.

Interdisciplinary education and collaboration is evolving as an important aspect of health care in the 21 century. Our students took advantage of this unique opportunity to participate in an immersive mission with dental students, which allowed each cohort to expand their skills and confidence while gaining an appreciation of their colleagues’ profession.

While nursing students have a classroom understanding of the importance of social determinants of health and the oral-systemic disease connection, seeing the impact first hand heightened their knowledge in a way that is not always possible from behind a desk or computer screen. After two days of assisting dental students evaluate patients lacking adequate preventative care and early intervention for dental caries, the nursing students developed a greater appreciation for the impact of dental caries and the associated pain on a person’s quality of life. Immersed in their professional prevention role, the students provided education on oral hygiene, the oral-systemic connection, benefits of a healthy diet and smoking cessation. They will transfer their honed skill set to their student role – and later as graduates in the nursing workforce – to benefit their Western New York patients.

They carried with them eyes opened wide; a renewed sense of purpose; a bond forged in miles and miles of blacktop and a makeshift clinic teeming with need; and their trusty stethoscopes.

What else did the students bring back to Buffalo? The invaluable quality of professional confidence in interdisciplinary practice and expanded skills in patient assessment, education and advocacy. These students chose to travel outside of their comfort zone, both geographically and professionally, and are now better equipped to identify and take advantage of local and global opportunities to help them grow as they continue their journey through nursing school and their careers.

Ultimately, this experience inspired a deeper passion and understanding for the nursing profession. And for the value of empathy.

This strong and determined multidisciplinary team traveled hundreds of miles in the midst of winter during the first week of their busy final semester of nursing school. They faced this challenge head on and after 48 hours walked away with new friends, colleagues and an astute awareness of the real-world impact of social determinants of health on an individual’s dental and physical health, while gaining an intense appreciation for the value of preventative health.

While these students set out to improve and change the lives of others, to their surprise, it was their lives that were changed forever.

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