Our behind-the-scenes heroes

Proficient sterilization and dispensary crew is at the heart of dental school
November 25th, 2019

Clinic Coordinator Mary Chris Sayre easily racks up thousands of steps while monitoring all clinics on several floors.

Every weekday, students queue up to a clinic dispensary, relying on the folks behind the counter to provide vital tools for their next extraction or root canal.

On the other side, it’s a whirling blur of activity. A crew of 16 full-time workers, divvied up between five dispensaries, scurries about. They anticipate students’ every need, every day, from the tiniest of files to large surgery cassettes. Every single item has a different purpose, and with thousands of items at hand, dispensary staff have a sharp learning curve. Students rely on them to know what they need.

“They are the unsung heroes. The doors wouldn’t open without them,” says supervisor Mary Chris Sayre, clinic coordinator, Office of Clinical Affairs. “We service the entire school and take care of all of their equipment. You name it, we take care of it.”

With the second-floor central sterilization as its hub, dispensaries sprinkled throughout the building (two main, AEGD, oral surgery, hygiene/perio, ortho/pedo) depend on this dynamic group for all the dental supplies they need to meet the demands of nearly 100,000 patient visits annually. Without the dispensary and sterilization squad’s fastidious dedication, procedures performed by dental and dental hygiene students would come to a screeching halt.

“The whole dispensary staff is indispensable. Pun intended. Without them, clinic would be a disaster,” says Paris Webb, D3 class president. “When one is missing, the other picks up the slack and tries their best to accommodate us. I personally look forward to all the side conversations and funny remarks as I run back and forth grabbing all the little things my D3 self forgets.”

Clinic dispensary drawer

Just one of dozens of drawers and bins in the main dispensary full of important gizmos

Dispensary workers pull from umpteen drawers and bins stashed with supplies. Divvying up and doling out putty for impressions is just one small aspect of their myriad duties. An ever-revolving inventory needs restocking throughout the day, including the self-serve area with goggles, gowns, syringes and more.

“It’s perpetual motion all day long. They are on their feet nine hours a day,” says Sayre, who typically logs between 6,000 and 8,000 steps daily as she runs interference in central sterilization and clinics. At the end of the day, “they’re exhausted. Absolutely exhausted.”

Ivan Torres has worked in the third-floor dispensary for two years now. He takes the constant commotion in stride, pointing out how he likes “interacting with people here and what we all do as one for the greater good of the community.”

Just around the corner, workers take back contaminated items once students are finished. Every clinic has a clean side where the supplies go out (the dispensary) and a dirty side where the used supplies, such as mirrors and explorers, come back in. From there, items are carted back to central sterilization to be washed, inspected, scraped, counted and sterilized in the autoclave. The cycle continues over and over.

“We have to get this stuff through the steps very quickly. That whole process takes about three hours,” Sayre says.

The sterilization crew’s tedious yet imperative work requires painstaking attention to detail. Often, instruments that come out of the washer still have cement attached. That’s when Ivan Rangel leads his group, including Nelly Santos and Esteban Martinez, in poring over hundreds of cassettes with 14 to 18 instruments inside, though many have been misplaced somewhere in the clinic or along the way and must be replaced with backups stocked in a nearby cabinet. Wire brushes are at the ready for pin-sized holes in impression trays that need to be scrubbed spotless. Finally, all instruments and trays are sent to the autoclave.

Beyond just the everyday clinical needs, these employees also keep track of students’ endo exams, board exams and any student-led events that require supplies, such as Sealant & Cleaning Day. Their insight is essential when packing up plastic bins with sterilized packets of instruments and equipment for exams. Crown and bridge trays, too, must be prepared the night before scheduled endo or operative procedures, Sayre says. Rangel and crew must understand which procedures require what items, right down to the smallest set of files.

The gravity of their role isn’t lost on Martinez, who has worked in central sterilization since May. He is fully aware that all of the dental students’ tools go through his department. He says he keeps the bigger picture in mind: sterilized items keep patients healthy and the dental school a trusted ally in the community’s dental health care. In return, a simple “thank you” from students and staff makes his day’s work worth the effort.

Just down the hall, Mike La Jesse, instrument coordinator, toils away in his office, making sure his part of the supply puzzle is running smoothly.

When on-order supplies are delayed because of inclement weather or when a supplier struggles to secure materials needed to manufacture their product, La Jesse has to get creative. Running out of items isn’t an option, he says. He distinctly remembers a heavily used casting material needed for impressions that was on back order.

“I had to actually borrow from another instructor. I order it for them for the summer course. They gladly let me borrow some,” says La Jesse, who worked in the dispensary for 15 years before moving into his current role.

It takes numerous spreadsheets and several staffers to keep track of thousands of these items. Burrs and files even have their own account, which alone has already had 19 orders placed this fall.

“I will have to admit, and I’m not saying this with arrogance or cockiness, but the dispensaries and central sterilization are the heart and soul of this building. Granted, the fifth floor is the brain trust behind this building, but the school would cease to operate if they weren’t there,” he says.

Robert Mayo restocks clinic inventory all day long, among his long list of other dispensary duties.

At the end of another day, as the clinic doors close with the last patient’s departure, the dispensary crew’s work continues. Six employees spend the next few hours working their way through the more than 100-chair main clinic, picking up discarded gowns, gauze and whatever else is left behind. They call it a day when the clinics are returned to good order, including bagging and removing trash and resupplying shelves. Last stop: central sterilization. The last of the contaminated supplies are dropped off, and the process starts all over again.

Below: Three intense hours on a typical day behind the main dispensary counter with staff Ivan Torres, Jacob Marin, Brianna Barnes and Robert Mayo. (For optimum viewing, watch in full screen.)

— Kathleen Green Pothier