Special Needs Attract Special Gift
Dentist’s Generous Gift Gives Unique Program Good Chance for Long-Term Viability
By Michelle G. McRuiz
Posted December 13, 2016
Throughout her four decades of practice, Shelly Fritz, DDS (University of Colorado-Boulder), AA ’74, BA ’75, MBA ’82 (all three from UNM), has always enjoyed caring for patients with special needs. Whether they have developmental disabilities, a degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, or behavioral health issues, Shelly is inspired by their courage and energy. “One of the reasons why I went to dental school was to treat people with special needs,” she said.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough dentists in New Mexico with the specialized training required to treat this population of an estimated 22,000. In addition, special-needs dentistry often calls for special equipment, additional staff, and extra time per patient encounter. And when the special-needs dentistry clinic at UNM Carrie Tingley Hospital lost its dentist to an out-of-state university, the clinic closed, followed by a period of uncertainty about its future. Shelly couldn’t stand by idly.
Prodding into Action
“I met with everyone who takes care of people with special needs: ARCA, Special Olympics, caretakers, moms, etc.,” she said. “I asked them, ‘In a perfect world, what would we want?’ We wanted the University to re-establish the special-needs program to teach dentists how to provide this kind of dentistry. We wanted an educational setting where residents and dentists could get special training. It wasn’t my idea, really; I was just the one with the cattle prod. And then I talked to UNM.”
Things began happening. UNM provided money for the relocation and renovation of the old dentistry clinic. A year later, the new clinic opened in Novitski Hall on North Campus. By all accounts it is a vast improvement on the old facility.
Then, in July 2015, the Department of Dental Medicine received a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration for a residency educational program which includes special-needs dentistry. But as generous as the grant is, it doesn’t cement the program’s future.
“The grant helps UNM hire a dentist and start a program,” said Shelly. “But what happens after five years? If we can raise $3 million for an endowment, UNM can have that program forever.”
And so Shelly created a very generous estate gift for the special-needs dentistry program. “You have to have a personal commitment about a cause if you want to see it succeed long term,” she said. “If you care so much about something, then do something about it.”
Looking for a Challenge
Beginning in the 1970s, Shelly worked as a hygienist for 16 years before enrolling in dental school, where a woman’s presence was rare. “‘You’re taking a man’s space,’ I was told,” she recalled. “Dentistry was the last male bastion in health care.” While a dental student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she received special training in treating patients with developmental disabilities and worked at the Fort Lyon Veterans Affairs Hospital.
After graduation, Shelly returned to Albuquerque and approached associations and societies, such as the New Mexico chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and behavioral health programs, introduced herself, and stated that she wanted to treat special-needs patients and their family members. “That’s how I started my practice,” she said.
“Dentistry was very easy for me,” she continued. “I wanted a challenge. I was adventurous; I found special-needs dentistry fun; and it just spiked my interest.”
Equal Access, Equal Care
The grant allows UNM to hire dentists for the training program for the Dental Medicine educational program. And that’s a tall order. In the most difficult cases, a patient may need a papoose board to stabilize him for treatment, family members in the exam room to help calm him, or sedation. “You have to take their blood pressure. A lot of times you have to call the [patient’s] physician, check his health history . . . and you have to have special training to do all that,” said Shelly. “It’s above and beyond putting a filling in.” In addition, she said, dentists need to learn not to fear.
Above all, Shelly wants special-needs patients to have equal access to quality dental care. “They deserve the same thing that anybody else deserves. We all need to be treated the same.” And that is the ultimate goal of the program, the grant, and Shelly’s gift.
“We can have that happen by educating dentists,” she said. “You don’t give people fish; you teach them how to fish.”
To learn more about special-needs dentistry at the UNM’s Department of Dental Medicine and what you can do to help, please visit dentalmedicine.unm.edu where you’ll find a brief video about the special-needs program. To watch the full-length video, click here.
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