A Heartfelt Profession

A graduating dentist first discovered her calling at Tufts special-needs clinics

Annie Le and her family in 2014 at Le's white coat ceremony

At just a bit under five feet tall, Annie Le would sometimes have difficulty positioning herself to do a cleaning for a patient when she was a hygienist at Tufts Dental Facilities clinics, whose special-needs clients often use wheelchairs or sometimes have trouble sitting still.

But Le would improvise when necessary to make the patient comfortable and complete the cleaning. Annie Le is not one to give up.

Eventually, Le wanted to be able to provide more care for her patients. Encouraged by the dentists she worked with at the clinics, and buoyed by her characteristic determination, Le decided to apply to dental school. On May 20, she will graduate with the D18 class from the School of Dental Medicine.

“Annie is an amazing example of perseverance and hard work, and I am very proud of her achievements,” said Richard G. Miller, D78, director of TDF’s Canton clinic. 

Born in Vietnam, Le arrived in Massachusetts with her family as a young teen. While she was a student at Everett High School, Le would study at night with her sister, who was going to dental hygiene school, drawn in by the illustrations of tooth anatomy.

After briefly considering pharmacy and nursing, she decided to follow her sister’s lead. Le completed the three-year accelerated bachelor’s program at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in 2010, and got a spot filling in for a hygienist who was on maternity leave at the former TDF Fernald clinic in Waltham. She stayed on at Fernald, and when that clinic closed in 2012, she got a full-time spot at the Canton location, moving in with her sister’s family in Quincy to be closer to work.

When Le first came to TDF, she hadn’t specifically been looking to work with patients with intellectual or developmental disabilities. She needed a job. But the job proved to be a great fit. “It is rewarding,” said Le. “The patients really appreciate our work, and when they come back, it’s so nice to see them. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a dentist. There are not enough dentists trained to do this type of work.”

There was also a personal connection that made the job particularly meaningful. Le’s young niece has special needs, and she saw the difficulties that parents like her sister can face getting care for their kids. That helped create a bond with her patients and their families. “I feel really attached to this population,” she said. Studies by Tufts researchers have also shown that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a higher burden of oral disease than the general population.

Le acknowledges that the work “is really challenging,”  she said. Caring for these patients means encountering behavioral situations that don’t often arise in a general practice, whether because of patients’ apprehension, or the effects of medication, or other impairments.

Miller, a decades-long veteran of caring for special-needs patients became Le’s mentor. “Annie,” he told her, “you should become a dentist.” It sounded a little daunting, but she finally told him, “OK, I’ll try.”

To keep her promise, Le needed to catch up on science classes she hadn’t needed for her dental hygiene degree. She enrolled at Northeastern University, and began a whirlwind couple of years, continuing to work full time, driving to Boston two evenings a week for classes until 9 p.m., taking her lab classes on Saturdays, and studying for the DAT dental entrance exam on Sundays. “To be honest, I almost gave up,” Le said. But she didn’t. The reward was acceptances to both Tufts and Boston University dental schools.

Le expects to join a general practice after graduation, but her goal is to return to working with special-needs patients, the people who brought her to dentistry in the first place. She repeats what Miller taught her: “It takes a special heart to do this job.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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