Going to the dentist is no fun for many, a sentiment shared by dental hygienist Lauren Durell of Portland.
At 28, Durell said sitting in the chair is as terrifying for her as it is for others.
But wanting people to overcome that fear is a goal she keeps in mind when she teaches at the University of New England School of Dental Hygiene, while working with patients at the nonprofit Root Cellar, and helping out with the Mainely Teeth dental clinic on wheels.
Durell is certified as an independent practice dental hygienist, which requires additional education beyond a Bachelor of Science degree. Developed to get intern-graduate students into a preventive dental health role, much of the focus is around early school-based instruction via non-traditional methods like remote learning.
Her licensing also means Durell is able to work outside of the scope of general dentistry and can accept a sliding scale fee, which is crucial to her work with the Root Cellar and Mainely Teeth.
A self-proclaimed over-achiever, Durell has a master’s degree in science and dental health. In 2019, she moved to Maine from her hometown of Barrington, New Hampshire, when an adjunct teaching opportunity opened up at her alma mater, UNE. In 2021, she became a full-time clinical instructor in the dental radiology lab, worked with junior and senior student clinicians teaching tooth preservation, developed curriculum, and started a service-learning partnership with the Root Cellar.
According to Durell, the Root Cellar is a solid option for lower-income Mainers without dental insurance or those who need assistance in general. With two dental chairs, the Christian-based organization operates mostly on grants and donations. Durell said she finds the work humbling and is there for a fifth of her UNE work week with students gaining experience.
“The work is draining because the clients need a lot,” she said. ”And there’s no capacity to help in the bigger picture. There is nowhere to send them if they need social or medical help outside of what services they already have.”
Durell has also been accepted to nursing school at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, which has an online program with access to a clinic. Calling it an important next step, Durell believes there’s a missing piece in our health system and the mouth is full of clues.
“This will be something further to link dental sleuthing to medical conditions even dentists are not trained to recognize,” she said.
What little free time Durell has is spent gutting and renovating her Portland condo, doing what she calls “power gardening,” and kayaking. She credits her parents for instilling her with a sense of adventure and the drive for continuing education. Her father surprised the family by going back to night school after 30 years as a paver and later taught seventh-grade social studies and history with costuming for reenactments; her mother works for Siemens as a senior technical health engineer in the health and medical tests divisions.
Durell also has a younger sister in North Carolina, and a cat, Leo, who is with her in Portland. Not ruling out a physician assistant or medical school path down the road, Durell has a clear vision for her future.
“I want to ask the questions that will help bridge the dental and medical branches of health care,” she said. “But right now, it’ll be nursing school. Then, we’ll see what’s next. Maybe I can figure out how to help people not be so freaked out at the dentist. That would be a lofty goal for sure.”