Care from someone who knows
By Norene Casas
Everyone has a story. Vidal Balderas, D.D.S., M.P.H., recalls his own as he delivers dental care to high-need communities.
Dr. Balderas, associate professor in the School of Dentistry, was born on the South Side of San Antonio and raised along the border near Eagle Pass, Texas. He spent his early years as a migrant worker, laboring alongside his family in fields throughout South Texas.
It was an accident with a machete that gave him his first clue that he was destined to help others. He was working in the fields when he struck his knee with the tool. Blood immediately spewed from a wound so deep he could see his bone.
His brother saw the wound and collapsed. Unfazed by the blood, Dr. Balderas only felt concern for his brother. This is the moment he knew he was meant to serve others.
“We have something inside that makes us want to help,” said Dr. Balderas. “An inner feeling of wanting to serve.”
He enrolled at the School of Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio while also working at a local grocery store. His father would often ask why he was spending so much time and money going to school when he already had a good job, but Dr. Balderas had other aspirations.
Through the dental school’s outreach programs, he traveled to developing nations, and the experience changed his view of health care.
“You start to see the world a little differently when you come back from a mission trip. You learn poverty is universal and you become conscious of other people’s needs around you,” he said.
He began seeing people who shared life stories that were similar to his own: low-income families working long hours to pay for basic necessities. Families for whom routine health care is viewed as a privilege. He listened to their stories and adjusted his care based on their needs.
Dr. Balderas graduated with his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the university in 1984 and continued with a master’s in public health and a residency in dental public health. Remaining connected to his roots, he began the San Antonio Independent School District Migrant Farmworker Children Mobile Van Program, providing free dental care to children of low-income migrant farmers.
He’s heard countless patient stories through the years. But there is one that stands out, one that was never finished.
The patient had an unusually quiet demeanor and appeared very frail. Her medical file showed a consistent drop in weight throughout her visits. Based on the extensive amount of acid erosion on her interior front teeth, Dr. Balderas suspected she suffered from bulimia. He arranged a follow-up appointment at a nearby community health center to address the disorder, but she never made the appointment.
They went to her apartment, only to find it empty. He never saw her again.
Her story remains with him, and pushes him to always work hard to better understand his patients.
Dr. Balderas continues to provide dental care in various community-based clinics. He also teaches School of Dentistry students and residents. During clinical rotations at Haven for Hope, a campus near downtown San Antonio that offers care and housing for those experiencing homelessness, he reminds his students that each person has a unique story that has brought them to where they are today.
“Some people can’t help where they are, but we are the missing pieces,” said Dr. Balderas. “We all can do something for those who have no voice.”
If a patient is agitated, he reminds them what they, as health care providers, are there to do.
“Look at the pain that is present. What can we do to provide them comfort?” he asks his students. “As health care providers, [we] are committed to try to improve the health of that individual, to repair and help people wherever they are at.”