When Rhonda Switzer-Nadasdi [DMD/91] was a UM dental student, she took part in a two-week rotation in northern Manitoba that changed her life.
While in Churchill, she saw young children from remote communities who had such severe tooth decay, they required dental surgery under general anesthesia. She was deeply struck by the need for oral health services in the North.
“You can’t experience that and not have it change you,” Switzer-Nadasdi says.
The rotation opened her eyes to opportunities in dentistry beyond private practice. That initial exposure to an underserved population in Canada’s North has led her to the American South, where she is now CEO of Interfaith Dental.
The charitable organization in Tennessee provides more than $6 million in care each year for those experiencing poverty. As “coach and cheerleader” of Interfaith Dental, Switzer-Nadasdi oversees a staff of 50 people and 200 volunteer professionals.
The organization cares for more than 3,000 patients each year at its two clinics, located in Nashville and Murfreesboro. There is such a high demand for dental care in the region that the clinics have a waiting list of more than 1,000 people.
“Thousands and thousands of people have had their lives transformed because of the dental care we’ve provided,” Switzer-Nadasdi says. “But also, thousands and thousands of people are now aware of the fact that oral health is health, and it’s essential.”
Interfaith Dental also advocates for social change, working for neighbourhood improvements such as more accessible grocery stores and less fast food, and for Medicaid reform.
Switzer-Nadasdi is originally from Portage la Prairie, Man. After graduating from UM, she completed a residency at a Veteran Affairs hospital in Louisville, Ky., then returned to Churchill and practised as a dentist for two years.
She then spent a year in Bermuda working in public health with children who experienced disparity in oral health. Her boyfriend, a musician living in Nashville, proposed to her and she moved to Music City.
There, she contacted UM alumnus Dr. Arthur Anderson [M.Sc./91], who was practising in the Nashville area. He told her about a dental charity that had just been launched.
In 1995, she became Interfaith Dental’s first employee. The clinic began as a two-chair operation in a church basement.
Expanding from those humble beginnings to an organization with 26 operatories is something to be celebrated, but growth is not a good thing in this line of work, Switzer-Nadasdi says.
“It’s sad that it had to grow to help meet demand,” she says. “I’d love to see that we wouldn’t be needed anymore.”
To help with the growth, Switzer-Nadasdi has brought in students and residents to train in the clinics. She hopes the experience doesn’t just enhance their skills but opens their eyes.
“I did what the U of M did for me,” she says.
“I bring students and residents in and they see what the need is, so hopefully they’ll consider public health, or they’ll serve at their local dental charity or community health centre when they go into private practice.”
BY MATTHEW KRUCHAK