Alumni share experiences, advice during pandemic response course


The COVID-19 pandemic brought an additional challenge to the UNMC College of Dentistry. In keeping with state requirements to restrict the practice of dentistry to emergency care and to help keep students safe, all spring semester extramural rotations were suspended. However, this situation prompted the college to develop innovative ways to help students form an understanding of the unique problems practicing dentists face.

Through a partnership with the UNMC College of Medicine and the UNMC College of Public Health, the College of Dentistry offered third- and fourth-year dental students a remote ‘pandemic response’ course to study in real time how COVID-19 affects health care practitioners, society and the health care system. The students joined UNMC medical students for lectures on various subjects including disaster relief planning, and current health care practitioners shared their experiences overcoming obstacles.

Sean Figy, MD, assistant professor of surgery, and Regan Taylor, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine, both with the UNMC College of Medicine, co-led development of the course.

"The great thing about UNMC is that we have world experts in so many aspects of emergency preparedness and infectious diseases," said Dr. Figy. "We took advantage of that expertise and created a truly multidisciplinary course that looks beyond the basic science and clinical science of COVID-19, but also how this affects the mind, body and soul of the community at large."

Jillian Wallen, B.D.S., MS, assistant dean for extramural activities and outreach for the College of Dentistry, was one of the course facilitators.

“Many College of Dentistry alums shared their time and expertise to help our students form an understanding of the problems dentists are facing during this challenging time. These alums had an important role in offering our students an innovative educational experience,” Wallen said.

Paula Harre, DDS, was one of the alums who shared a historical perspective with students.

“I talked about my experience as a new graduate in the early 1980s starting a dental practice in a small community during the discovery of the AIDS virus,” Harre said. “The situations I faced mirror what many dentists may experience during the COVID-19 pandemic: patients were fearful of contracting AIDs during a dental procedure, some were unable to pay for needed dental care due to the bleak economic situation, and the cost of doing business increased due to the additional costs of personal protective equipment.”

“My intent was to let the students know that practicing dentists encounter obstacles throughout their careers. It’s the ability to adapt that is critical. Through sharing my experiences, I wanted to assure them that I was able to overcome obstacles, just as they will be able to do throughout their careers,” Harre said.

James F. Jenkins, DDS, a College of Dentistry alum and current assistant professor and director of alumni affairs for the college, also participated in the course.

“I had the pleasure of being part of a panel discussion with three other dentists, sharing what we are doing to practice dentistry again in the face of the pandemic. It was very interesting to hear four dentists' different perspectives on how they will be safely delivering dental care during the pandemic. I felt the entire course was very well-received by everyone involved,” Jenkins said.

Mariah Heft, a third-year dental student, thought the course was an excellent educational resource for students.

“It was great getting to hear alums share their uncensored fears, plans and advice regarding these unprecedented times. The extensive discussions about new protective equipment protocols and how dental businesses have been affected financially gave great insight into our futures in post-COVID-19 dentistry. Not to mention, the course was a great means of staying connected with our UNMC family, including our alumni,” Heft said.

Cam Aitken, also a third-year dental student, gained important knowledge that will help with future problem-solving.

“The topics we covered helped prepare us to face whatever challenges are thrown our way,“ Aitken said.