Making Young Smiles Bright
10 Jan 24
The USC Pediatric Dentistry Clinic provides families with affordable high-quality dental care.
IN 2015, ALEM VIVEROS WAS PLAYING IN THE FRONT YARD of his Sun Valley, Calif., home when he fell off his scooter. The impact of the accident knocked out one of the 7-year-old’s front teeth.
“I was so scared,” recalls his mother, Angelica Viveros. “In that moment, I didn’t know how to react.”
She and her husband, Mario, rushed Alem to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where they received emergency treatment and a referral to USC’s Pediatric Dentistry Clinic for more specialized care.
Operated through the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, the pediatric dental clinic provides affordable, high-quality oral healthcare and patient education to underserved communities, including those with special needs.
The clinic’s dental team stabilized and maintained Alem’s tooth to ensure proper bone growth, which required frequent visits for the next three years to monitor the tooth’s progress and prevent infections.
The Viveroses decided to continue making the 28-mile trip to the clinic — sometimes braving rush-hour traffic and white-knuckled drives in the rain — for Alem’s dental care.
“It makes me happy that we can help parents with their children’s needs for dental work,” —Suzy Angel
“We could have picked a dental office that is closer,” Mario says, “but we decided to continue going because of the service and easy payments.”
Often a first-stop for families in need, the clinic primarily serves low-income patients under the DentiCal and Healthy Families programs.
It is also often a safe haven for children with special needs who might not be able to find treatment elsewhere. The clinic is equipped with three quiet rooms where children with autism and other special needs can be treated — sometimes with assistance from Ostrow’s Dental Anesthesiology team.
“Finding a provider who can effectively cater to children with special needs is an incredibly challenging journey for these families,” says Alexander Alcaraz PEDO ’07, who is co-chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics and director of the advanced program in pediatric dentistry. “We feel so much empathy for these children when they finally come to us after months, and possibly years, of their dental care going untreated”
The 15-chair pediatric clinic provides all students in the doctor of dental surgery program an introduction to pediatric dentistry through three-week clinical rotations.
Under the supervision of the clinic’s expert faculty, the clinic’s residents provided Viveros restorative, endodontic and surgical treatment as well as a temporary partial denture until he can have a permanent tooth implanted when he reaches the age of 21.
Alem says he appreciates the conversations he’s had with dentists because they would ask him how he was doing in school or what video games he liked to play.
“When I meet a new dentist, they always introduce themselves and are very friendly,” says Alem, now 15. “The next time I see them it feels like I have known them for years.”
Helping Kids Through Dentistry
Making young patients feel at ease in the dentist chair is what keeps Padi Nazarian ’18, DDS ’22, PEDO ’24 motivated.
“I really enjoy being able to take a child who is so afraid at the beginning and help them pave the rest of their lifestyle, working not only with dentists, but with other healthcare professionals,” Nazarian says. “Knowing that they are in the right hands at USC really pushes me through the most difficult days.”
Initially set on a career in pediatric medicine, Nazarian became interested in pediatric dentistry when she had a cavity shortly before starting college.
“I went to the dentist, and I saw my love for art and medicine come together and thought ‘what better way to help kids than through dentistry?,’” Nazarian says.
After earning her undergraduate degree and DDS degree at USC, Nazarian says the decision to apply to the university’s advanced program in pediatric dentistry was an easy one.
“I compared USC to a lot of other programs and, of course, they all are great, but nothing was home more than USC,” Nazarian says. “The faculty are so willing to help, and I saw the work that they did and how much they want to give back and how much the alumni community wanted to give back. At USC, everyone likes to give back and to help the next generation of dentists.”
A Wealth of Experience
Alcaraz enjoys seeing residents learn through the hands-on experience they gain from working at the clinic.
“Seeing their minds get expanded when they kind of have that ‘aha moment,’ when they kind of realize something really unique that they have learned and they want to share it with you … that feels good,” he says.
What makes the residency program special, Alcaraz says, is that students can rotate through hospital-based dentistry clinics at Los Angeles General Medical Center and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, in addition to three different children’s hospitals: Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital Orange County and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital Long Beach.
“The residents get a wealth of experience in all aspects of pediatric dentistry to the point where they are really able to handle anything that walks through their door when they go into private practice,” Alcaraz says. “We see a lot of new patients that are bounced around, that haven’t received good care. They have been traumatized from past dental experience. They are kind of lost, and they come to us so that we can help them and get them all the care they need.”
Watching Children Grow Up
Suzy Angel first learned about the pediatric dental clinic at USC when the USC Mobile Clinic, which provided dental treatment to low-income elementary school-age children, visited her daughter’s preschool.
“They [Angel’s children] were traumatized from another dental office, so they were afraid it was going to be the same, but gratefully they got to experience something better,” Angel says.
The mother of three was so impressed by the high-quality dental care her children received that she began working as the pediatric dental clinic’s front office coordinator in 2021.
“It makes me happy that we can help parents with their children’s needs for dental work,” Angel says.
Her job at the clinic, Angel says, has also taught her a great deal about how to better take care of her children’s teeth and her own.
“So far, we are doing great with cleaning and keeping the cavities out of the way with the help of dentists’ recommendations,” says Angel, who brings her children to the clinic every six months for dental exams and cleanings.
Nazarian says it has been amazing to watch Angel’s children grow up at the clinic.
“The assistants talk to them as if they are family,” Nazarian says.
With approximately 2,500 patients served in 2023, the clinic is busy but highly efficient, says Alcaraz, who credits the clinic’s success to the great staff and faculty at USC.
“I think without them we wouldn’t be able to make the program work,” Alcaraz says. “I am grateful to all of them. We really try to select the best residents in the country, not only clinically and didactically, but most importantly just finding good, empathetic people that really want to work hard.”
Looking to the clinic’s future, Alcaraz is hoping renovations will allow the clinic to continue providing high-quality care for patients in a state-of-the-art environment.
“Our last major renovation was in the 2000s, and it had some minor upgrades in 2015, but we really need a complete face lift,” Alcaraz says. “I am really excited to bring it into the next generation of pediatric dentistry with some new technology and just have a really good recruitment tool for the future generations of pediatric dentists to learn.”
As for the Viveros family, their commutes to University Park are far from over.
Their youngest daughter, Yaretzi, recently got braces.
“We are going to start all over,” Angelica says, with a laugh. “We are going to stay a little while longer.”
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