Savannah Glanville bent over the lab table at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry holding a needle aloft in one blue-gloved hand. The 12-year-old took a deep breath and prepared to suture a hot dog.
Push, nudge, push went Savannah’s hands, as she remembered to guide the needle horizontally through the hot dog instead of jabbing down. The needle emerged on the other side, and Savannah slowly pulled through the long white thread.
Two knots over and one under, a snip with the scissors — and then Savannah triumphantly held up her frankfurter and displayed it to her helper, dental student Teddy Umo. The formerly gaping cut that had bisected the sausage horizontally was held neatly together now by the knotted white thread, just as a tear in a real patient’s gum tissue might be.
“Wow!” Umo said. “Good job! It looks like this hot dog is going to live."
Savannah was among the 26 kids from three Southwest Baltimore middle schools who participated Saturday in an innovative day of oral health education. The event was sponsored by the University of Maryland, Baltimore CURE Scholars Program aimed at preparing students living in impoverished neighborhoods for careers in the sciences, technology, engineering or math. Another co-sponsor was Planet Smilez, a hands-on oral health education program created by 2019 Maryland School of Dentistry alumna Kathryn Pawlak.
In the morning, the kids learned principles of oral health while a sealant was applied to their own teeth free of charge. A dental-themed rap battle followed. After lunch, the young scholars practiced such basic dental techniques as suturing wounds and carving a replacement tooth, in this case from a bar of soap.
The young dentists-in-training wore white lab coats and face masks to protect themselves against germs. Nonetheless, their enthusiasm was contagious.
Earold Farquharson, 11, tied for second place in the rap battle with a song inspired by the tragic story of a kid who lost every molar in his mouth after consuming too many sugary soft drinks.
“Now I’m rocking a new set of dentures,” Earold rapped. “It’s a new adventure./But don’t be like me./Take care of your teeth!”
Pawlak, now a resident at the University of Buffalo, created Planet Smilez to honor her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned as a boy inside the Dachau concentration camp. Even after his release, Pawlak’s grandfather struggled with the health ramifications of his incarceration.
“Because of lack of nutrition and dental hygiene in the camps, my grandfather needed a full set of dentures before he turned 30,” Pawlak said. “It had a negative impact on his whole life, both in terms of aesthetics and because he had difficulty eating. Dentures don’t function the same as natural teeth.”
Dentists have gotten a bad rap with the public over the years. That’s partly because a mission dedicated to fighting tooth decay may not have the cachet of, for instance, fighting cancer.
But Pawlak said that seemingly minor difficulty in chewing or swallowing can be an an early warning sign of potentially serious problems elsewhere in the body. For instance, she told the kids, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver of Prince George’s County died in 2007 after an untreated tooth infection spread to his brain.
Even when tooth decay doesn’t kill, it can wreak havoc with patients’ lives. In the United States, a white-toothed, uniform smile historically has been used to signify class status, according to Gia Grier-McGinnis, executive director of CURE.
She recalled a former patient who was working hard to escape the cycle of poverty. The young mother was excited about upcoming job interviews — until she fell on her front stoop, knocking out her teeth. She didn’t have the funds to pay for the expensive oral surgery she would need.
“After she lost her teeth, she was so embarrassed she didn’t want to go on the interviews," Grier-McGinnis said. “We told her, ‘No!’ You have to go. We’ll figure something out.”
Breaking News Alerts
But just as — fun fact — every individual’s teeth are shaped slightly differently, the young scholars found a different purpose for the information they absorbed.
Kayla Wyche, 14, and an eighth grade student at Green Middle School, figures that suturing a hot dog will be a useful skill to learn for her future life as a forensic scientist.
“I like cutting things up, ” she said. “I’ve already dissected a worm in science class. We also got to dissect a fetal pig. Cutting off the skin was hard."
"This,” Kayla said, waiving an arm and point her cutting tool at the hot dog for emphasis, “this is easy.”
Clearly, Kayla is already getting comfortable maneuvering a dental forceps. But how does she feel when the tartar scraper is in someone else’s hand? Does Kayla actually enjoy reclining in the dentist’s chair and opening her mouth wide?
She didn’t hesitate.
“Well,” she said, “it sure beats visiting the pediatrician.”