Dental School alumna completes circle to provide care in Laredo
Thousands of children each year receive dental care from government-funded and community–based clinics. But years ago, a determined and academically gifted young girl from Laredo received much more than dental care and braces. The dental students who provided her care at the Laredo Health Department explained what they were doing, involving her in the process. They inspired her to dream of one day becoming a dentist herself.
That little girl, Claudia Cavazos, D.D.S., recently celebrated more than a decade as dental director of Gateway Community Health Center, one of the Dental School’s first clinical partners in Laredo.
What happened in between those early dental visits and her leadership role now serves as a model for the Dental School’s program for South Texas, and a dream come true to Dr. Cavazos, who also serves as an adjunct faculty member, shepherding Health Science Center dental students and residents through their clinical education.
“I had braces as a child and I was intrigued by dentistry,” she said. “I was fortunate to obtain my dental work at our local health department, where I was treated by dental students. My positive experience there was instrumental in the role I now play with the Dental School as a clinical faculty member,” she said.
After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with honors, Dr. Cavazos entered the Dental School in 1993. “I was the first dental student to rotate through Gateway Community Health Center. It was a very positive experience and I was fortunate to meet some people who were positive influences for me and who are still my friends today,” she said.
“I was a sophomore, so I did not get to do much that summer, but I was able to see dentistry firsthand, and it was exciting,” Dr. Cavazos continued. “I remember seeing the dentist remove a cyst from a patient. He spoke about how he sometimes practiced comprehensive dentistry, including surgeries and surgical extractions, because his patients did not have other options for treatment. Most patients who are seen in community health centers are uninsured, so the clinics provide a great service.”
After completing a residency in advanced education in general dentistry and a few years in private practice, she decided to work at Gateway. Since then, she has seen Gateway’s dental services move from being housed in mobile trailers to a three-story, modern building with 15 operatories and a second location with eight operatories.
Gateway collaborates with the Dental School to offer rotations for dental students in primary care and community-based dentistry, where they learn to provide preventive services for children and emergency treatment for adults.
Prosthodontics residents provide full and partial dentures, crowns and bridges. They also offer maxillofacial services that would otherwise be unavailable in Laredo, such as reconstructive surgery for patients who have lost body parts such as eyes, a nose or cheek to a traumatic injury or radiation therapy for cancer.
Through the periodontics residency, also offered at Gateway, residents gain clinical experience in systemic health evaluation, oral and periodontal diagnosis, treatment planning and comprehensive periodontal therapy for patients with diseases, deformities and other conditions affecting the teeth, gums and other oral structures.
Like the dental students who provided her care when she was a child, Dr. Cavazos is now encouraging other young people to consider a dental career.
“Unfortunately, there is a large shortage of providers at community health centers in most of the United States, including South Texas, a dental Health Professional Shortage Area. I have had several high school students observe at our clinic.
I strongly feel that we need to get young people interested in the medical and dental fields,” Dr. Cavazos said. “We also need to showcase what is available at our local community health clinics to help future dentists become interested in working at these sites.”