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"When designing our project, it was my hope that we might be able to make life easier for other people dealing with cancer and their caregivers," says Schweitzer Fellow Maggie Fetner (pictured above with Schweitzer Fellow Jessica Oliver and a young participant in their program).

Several weeks ago, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ran a powerful feature on Schweitzer Fellows Maggie Fetner and Jessica Oliver, UNC School of Dentistry students who are delivering hands-on oral health education to pediatric patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

Fetner and Oliver’s Schweitzer project fills an urgent need, as the cancer treatments these young patients undergo frequently cause both oral discomfort (including sore and dry mouths), and increased susceptibility to infection.

In this week’s installment of Five Questions for a Fellow, we talk with Fetner and Oliver (whose Schweitzer Fellowships are being funded by the Dental Foundation of North Carolina) about why they’re taking action — and the ways they hope their project will make life easier for young cancer patients and their families.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Our project focuses on helping childhood cancer patients. We work with the patients, their parents, and their physicians and nurses to identify dental issues and teach them how to prevent future problems with their oral health.

Unfortunately, the therapies that help to treat cancer often cause patients to experience sore and dry mouths. We try to help patients that are dealing with these symptoms and talk to new patients about how to prevent the same symptoms in the course of their treatment.

Jessica and I decided to develop this project in hopes that we might make a difference in the parts of dentistry about which we have become passionate. Also, we have personal experiences that have created a sensitivity and concern for cancer patients. My mother-in-law passed away last year after a long battle with the disease. She constantly suffered the negative effects that her treatments had on her body. Her mouth was sore often and there many times she was too weak to clean her own teeth.

When designing our project, it was my hope that we might be able to make life easier for other people dealing with cancer and their caregivers. While doing so, I am learning how to best interact with children, a skill that will help me better serve my future patients in my job as a pediatric dentist.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope that the kids with whom we interact will be able to get through their cancer treatments more easily because of the problems we identify and the issues that we hopefully are able to prevent. It is also my hope that dentistry will become a permanent fixture in the clinics where we are working. Hopefully, the big blue dinosaur with a full set of teeth that we use to teach kids about how to brush will be around UNC Hospitals for many years to come!

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Current headlines often include discussions of disparities in access to health care, as well as what the future of our nation’s health insurance system will be. While both of these topics are and should be of great concern, I feel that an increased focus on prevention of health problems and finding ways to develop more positive habits should be a major part of how healthcare professions spend their time with patients.

When patients are informed directly and personally about the habits they can employ to better themselves, they are put in control of their own health. The more time healthcare professionals can spend teaching patients how to prevent problems, the less time and money individuals, insurance companies, and governments will have to spend on medications and trying to fix problems that have already been established.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

The kids with whom we have the opportunity to interact are just plain awesome. I’m often surprised by how much they know about their own situations or by how resilient they are.

The parents of the kids are inspiring people. They sacrifice so much in order to make sure their kids have the best possible care and to make sure their kids are as happy as possible. I’m not surprised by how great these parents are, but I am surprised by how interested they are in what we have to share and in how kind they are to us as we continue to learn more about how to teach and effectively encourage the kids to care for their mouths.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

I’m honored to be a part of the long tradition of the Schweitzer Fellowship. Over the past several months that I’ve been a part of the project, I’ve developed the sense that from now on, being an advocate for health will be part of who I am.

As I continue into future aspects of my life and career, I will find new ways to serve others and help my patients. Being a Schweitzer Fellow has taught me the importance of working together with all those that can have an impact on health care. Also, it is apparent to me that I should always be learning and seeking new knowledge about the field of dentistry and health in general.

Fetner and Oliver are Schweitzer Fellows in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Fetner and Oliver it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Fetner and Oliver’s efforts to improve the oral health of pediatric cancer patients, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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