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A dental quest among the Lakota


A little-known but admirable outreach program for dentists, hygienists and dental students is the St. Francis Mission Among The Lakota Dental Clinic in South Dakota. Situated just inside the western border of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the clinic offers free dental care to the Lakota people. For nine years, the clinic has been serving those in high need of dental care.

When I started dental school at the University at Buffalo, my father and I made a pact that we would do an outreach trip together if we got the opportunity. My father, Dr. Michael Romano, is a general dentist in Liverpool, New York, and a 1985 graduate of UBSDM. Toward the end of my third year, my father read an article about the dental clinic at Rosebud Indian Reservation in the American Dental Association monthly newspaper. It seemed like the perfect opportunity since the clinic is run solely by volunteer dentists across the country.

I presented the information to my school administration. They embraced the opportunity to send a group of fourth-year students and granted us financial support. At the beginning of my fourth year, eight students, my father and Dr. Gambacorta from UB Dental school traveled to St. Francis Mission for a week-long trip.

View of the outside of the St. Francis Mission dental clinic.

The Lakota people were welcoming and grateful to have us. We worked in the clinic alongside a dental hygienist and assistant who were native to the area and knew the community well. We saw patients of all ages with various complex dental needs. Since we were there for only a week, we had to identify what was most critical for each patient and treat them as efficiently as possible.

This trip gave me a new appreciation for what I can do as a general dentist. It was essential to take a big-picture approach to complex cases and at the same appointment address those needs. We performed extractions, restorations, pulpotomies and even biopsied one patient with a suspicious lesion. This outreach trip emphasized the privilege I have as a dentist to significantly impact a community’s healthcare.

Sunrise walk through the neighborhood along the cemetery. Pictured is Dr. Michael Romano.

Not only did the Lakota people graciously accept our dental care, they also welcomed us into their homes and spaces. Our first night there we attended an outdoor pow wow where Native Americans from all over the country in full native dress gathered and participated in traditional dances and ceremonies. Later in the week, we joined a sweat lodge ceremony at the home of one of the workers at the clinic. Inside the hot, darkened domed lodge, we sat close together in a circle, listened to singing and prayer, and connected with ancestors. It was a moving experience. I felt honored to have been welcomed into that sacred space.

Artwork found in the St. Francis Mission dental clinic.

We also toured a museum next to the dental clinic filled with authentic Lakota art and historical artifacts. The guide taught us about the history of the Lakota people and the surrounding Native American tribes that used to occupy the lands. It was eye-opening to hear stories that happened right on my home soil that I had never learned about in my years of education. I will be forever grateful to the Lakota people for welcoming us into their community and sharing their stories.

I am also grateful for everyone who was on this trip with me: my classmates, Dr. Gambacorta and especially my dad. I’m privileged to have a father who is a dentist. Having this professional and personal experience with my father, learning from him and providing care to this community together was a bonding moment. I was reminded why I chose a career path in dentistry in the first place.

~ Abigail Romano, Buffalo ‘23

Featured image: The University of Buffalo dental team outside St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic. Pictured from left to right: Dr. Gambacorta, Dr. Romano, Abigail Romano, Taryn More, Marty Jones of St. Francis Mission, Drew Hanna, Elisabeth Estep, Brooke Thornhill, Olivia Marziale, Pallavi Mathur and Mike Casab.

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