Dentists interrupted

Our alumni do their part while weathering the fallout of COVID-19
April 9th, 2020

Crystal Stinson’s normal day includes extra precautions to protect her family once she arrives home from the Agape Clinic.

With dental offices temporarily shuttered to all but emergency procedures during COVID-19 sheltering in place, a few Texas A&M College of Dentistry alumni offer an inside look into the small victories, as well as their daily worries.

Once state orders came to scale back dental care, the first order of business included taking inventory of office supplies, most notably personal protective equipment, or PPE. After dentists assessed their own needs, these alumni say they willingly rose to the occasion when others called for backup.

Dr. Drew Vanderbrook with son Grant at his office before the pandemic. Now he’s taken on dad duty full time.

One patient who works on the frontlines inquired about donations of spare N95 masks, says Dr. Drew Vanderbrook ’12. His Dallas office had already donated as many extra masks and gloves as they could to a local organization, but one employee offered up her backup mask.

“The patient met my employee after hours to get the single mask. I think that shows how critical the need is at this time,” he says.

Dr. Rishika Kapoor ’14 says her practice has been equally happy to help the community through the COVID crisis by sharing any extra supplies they have.

Dr. Rishika Kapoor

Dr. Rishika Kapoor

“We have tried to push supplies to our local hospitals, as they have a dire need at this time,” says Kapoor, who practices at Dallas-area PerioLife periodontics and implant dentistry offices. “We have donated to the hospitals that have asked.”

Dr. Crystal Stinson ’14, assistant professor in public health sciences, who also works at the Agape Clinic in Dallas, says they have enough supplies for now but certainly no extras to donate.

Instead, Stinson has contributed to alleviating the mask shortage by making a monetary donation to Ese Azenabor. The Dallas clothing designer reconfigured her bridal-gown production line to sew a lofty goal of 10,000 masks for hospitals locally and nationwide. Stinson says hospitals aren’t the only ones needing extra PPE. She urges anyone wanting to make donations to keep senior living facilities in mind.

For now, this is the new normal. Dallas-area dentists aren’t sure when they’ll be back to elective procedures and preventive dental cleanings. But when they do return, Kapoor says, “supplies will be a limiting factor if and when we start seeing patients normally.”

Until then, she says her practice is using the time to catch up on administrative work as well as see patients with emergencies. In doing so, dentists’ ultimate goal is to divert patients away from overtaxed hospital emergency rooms. That includes Stinson’s work at the Agape Clinic.

“I am proud of the efforts in place to help the frontline focus on COVID-19 and decrease dental emergencies seeking treatment in the ER,” Stinson says. “It is extremely heartwarming to see everyone doing their part during this crisis.”

Vanderbrook says he suspects it will take awhile to get back in the groove once his office reopens. They’ve been closed since March 19 and don’t expect to be back until Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order runs out on April 22, although that date could be pushed back further.

“I anticipate there will be many changes in the way we see patients, and some patients may not feel comfortable coming into the office for quite some time,” Vanderbrook says.

Life has already changed immensely for Stinson. Take, for example, her after-work routine. After spending the day covered from head to toe in protective gear, she is mindful to contain germs once she gets home.

“Having two small kids who are eagerly waiting for me to get home, I sometimes have their dad take them out back so I can sneak in to the laundry, spray my shoes with Lysol and place them in the garage, and then take a shower,” she says.

While Stinson and other alumni have played a positive role during this pandemic, they are also dealing with the inevitable downside of fewer patient appointments: lost income.

Stinson was recently furloughed from Freeman Dental in Duncanville, her primary practice location. Despite losing that paycheck, she says she completely understands the difficult decisions practice owners have to make.

That sentiment is widespread, and these dentists agree that they’re doing their best to weather the storm.

Dr. Mendez

Dr. Anthony Mendez sympathizes with dentists trying to balance finances with a desire to continue compensating staff.

“There is much uncertainty, with private practitioners having to technically furlough employees. The problem with that is how to continue to pay employees who are not working at the moment,” says Dr. Anthony Mendez ’04, who is on leave from his Austin practice while recovering from a car accident. “Many of the ancillary staff are often young single women, many with children, and they rely on their paycheck every end of a pay period. So how does the dentist/owner reach a fair conclusion?”

Mendez points out that running a dental office is fairly expensive, with staff salaries being a major part of the financial pie. Being fair to beloved staff without breaking the bank is a dilemma for many, he says.

As social distancing drags on, these dentists agree that there’s plenty of time to contemplate the future while also looking for related upsides.

“Hopefully we can take each day at a time and rest and recuperate for a stronger future,” Kapoor says. “I am thankful we all have places to shelter at home and phones to FaceTime/video chat with friends and family.”

— Kathleen Green Pothier