Her patient that day was alone. She had no one in her life, not even any family or friends to list for emergency contact numbers on her medical history. Dr. Marie Latortue cautioned the woman that she needed to get her diabetes under control or it could kill her. It didn’t help. The patient responded, “I don’t care if I die today.”
So Latortue, a clinical assistant professor in public health sciences, switched gears. “I asked her what kind of music she likes, got her in a groove. I asked her, ‘Do you want to hear a story?’”
It’s not one Latortue retells often.
Fresh out of dental school at the Faculté d’Odontologie of the Universite d’etat d’Haiti in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, Latortue had come to Atlanta for six months. It was December 2000. Her plan: Take English courses and apply for a master’s degree at a university in the U.S. Things didn’t go as expected. Just one year into her stay, there was the accident. Latortue was a passenger in her cousin’s car when a drunk driver slammed into the vehicle. It left Latortue with broken ribs and a collapsed shoulder. The injury was crippling, but surgery wasn’t exactly an option. She didn’t have health insurance and didn’t speak English, so she resigned to return home to Haiti.
“Can you imagine someone having to brush your teeth, give you a shower, and you can hear your bones every time?” Latortue says. “That’s the pain. Unbearable, crunching pain.”
A month passed. On a return trip to the hospital in Atlanta, a surgeon recognized Latortue. He had seen her after the accident, and this time his eyes grew wide upon realizing she still had not undergone surgery.
“He said, ‘Enough is enough. You are going to be a dentist, and I am going to fix your arm. I want to do the surgery for free,’” Latortue recalls. By this point, the bones in her shoulder had begun to fuse together, and the surgeon knew that without the operation, she would never be able to pursue her chosen profession.
“Because of what he did, it changed me as a person,” says Latortue. “That arm doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to God. Who am I not to help other people, too? If he can do that for me, and he didn’t know me — I didn’t even speak English — it put in my heart a desire to help other people who don’t have a voice. I didn’t have a voice when I met him. I couldn’t even say thank you.”
It took Latortue 18 months of physical therapy to regain the use of her right arm and hand, and since then, she’s made up for lost time. After earning a public health master’s degree at Emory University in 2005, she finished a master’s in clinical research and a three-year fellowship in oral medicine at the University of Connecticut dental school. In August 2014, after receiving advanced training in prosthodontics from the New York University College of Dentistry, Latortue joined the faculty at Texas A&M College of Dentistry.
She keeps adding to her skill set with one goal in mind: providing as much care as possible to the patients who need her help; specifically, the people she treats at the Baxter-Crowley Agape Clinic five days a week. She supervises third- and fourth-year dental students who rotate to the facility just a few blocks east of the college, where dental care is provided at no cost, save for an optional $35 donation.
We were able to pull Latortue away from her patients — if only for a little while — to learn more about some of the most common oral health concerns she sees at Agape, the values she works to instill in students and what fuels her outlook and work.
Your enthusiasm and drive are contagious. They must show through to students. What are some of the things you try to impart to them above and beyond the technical aspect of the care you provide at Agape?
I make them work hard. On campus they see two patients a day. At Agape, they see five to six patients a day. And they have their own assistant, so they feel like they are in their own private setting.
I don’t watch over their shoulder. I tell them, “I am next door; if you have a question, call me.” I have one student, when she first came to do an extraction, she was shaking. Now she is one of the best students in extraction.
I tell them, “You have all the knowledge, you have the classes. The clinic is made for you to practice.” First, you will find people who bring something that you don’t expect. I teach the students to make the patient comfortable even if they are not. Second, always refer; that’s why we have specialists.
What are some of the most common problems you see in patients at Agape?
We have 150 patients waiting for dentures, and people keep coming. So far we have made more than 20 sets of dentures, and no one comes in for adjustments. It’s like a miracle; they go home and never call me back.
Another concern is crowns. We have a lot of patients who don’t want to speak. They put their hands on their teeth. They need crowns, they need bridges. They don’t want to go to job interviews. Oral health has such a huge impact on their lives.
We have patients who come into the clinic and say, “My teeth are bad. I don’t even want to open my mouth.” I tell them, “I’m not here to judge you. It doesn’t matter what your past looks like, but at least you are here.” They come here with low self-esteem, but we try to build them up. Let’s go forward.
Knowing the length of your academic and geographic journey, how is your career fulfilling what you envisioned?
It is rewarding, but I always feel like I can do more. Maybe that’s a problem I have. In my mind I feel like, “Maybe I can do something further for this patient.” Why not do something if you can?
Knowing that you take such joy in giving back to others the way that surgeon gave you back your career, what meaning do Agape’s patients bring to your days?
These patients are helping me more than I am helping them. They bring me so much joy. Someone recently came in from DeSoto with tooth pain. I asked him, “How long have you been in pain?” He told me six months. That can break your heart. My one day late is another patient who could still be in pain.
They teach me how to be patient, they teach me how to be respectful. I feel like my life has a sense of meaning because of them. It doesn’t stop there. I go home and think, “What can we do?” I contact Dr. Jones and Paul Hoffmann, and they contact other people and make these things happen. The patients become a part of my life in a sense. You cannot put a price on that. My practice is not boring. It’s not like every day I’m coming in and doing crowns; I never know what to expect. Every day they come, I serve them. They make me a better person, a better neighbor.