It’s early in the morning, but there’s already a long line of people waiting for the doors to open at Haven for Hope – a shelter and the transformational campus in San Antonio. While some are just waiting in line for a hot meal, many are here seeking dental services from the UT Dentistry mobile clinic.
“At Haven for Hope, fourth-year dental students, residents and dental hygiene students from the School of Dentistry perform general dental services at little or no cost,” said Noemi C. Gonzales, manager of clinical operations at UT Dentistry. She’s become a go-to-person at Haven for Hope over the past 17 years.
Termed “Street Dentistry,” fourth-year dental students do a one-week clinical rotation at Haven for Hope and the San Antonio Christian Dental Clinic. This community clinic program is headed by Vidal Balderas, D.D.S., M.P.H., director of primary dental care for the homeless at UT Health San Antonio.
It’s a challenging task for everyone involved, as these high-risk patients are in dire need of dental care and often suffer from mental illness. It’s tough for Gonzales, too, since she’s the one who orders and maintains all of the necessary supplies, sets schedules for rotations and maintains all patient records. But Gonzales relies on the joy she feels from helping the homeless get through the day.
“Working here at a mobile clinic really humbles you,” she said. “Many of these patients are victims of traumatic and tragic circumstances. They were like everyone else before unfortunate events disrupted their lives. Sometimes a simple tooth extraction or basic preventive care can stop a serious condition before it begins.”
It’s hard work, but seeing the bright smiles from these patients makes it worthwhile for Gonzales and dental students.
Gonzales is an experienced dental health professional who has worked the past 36 years helping dental students, faculty, and patients.
“I worked in private dental practice before joining UT Health San Antonio in 1983 as a Registered Dental Assistant,” she recalls. Since then, she has also served as a patient care coordinator and a clinical research coordinator. In 2003, Gonzales started work in a community clinic, where she has worked with local organizations like San Antonio Christian Dental Clinic, Haven for Hope and other state public health agencies to provide much needed basic dental services to the underserved population in Texas.
“It’s almost impossible for many people to see dentists in the Valley, so we travel to see these patients a few times a year,” said Gonzales.
Dr. Balderas, Elaine Neenan, D.D.S., Juanita Lozano-Pineda, D.D.S., and a group of dental students travel to remote locations with all of their equipment and provide valuable dental services. “We have successfully treated migrant workers, elderly at nursing homes and many impoverished patients throughout the state,” Gonzales said proudly.
During her 36 years at the School of Dentistry, Gonzales has witnessed some impressive changes. “Root canals used to take multiple appointments decades ago, but now patients are in and out with just one appointment. Digital technology really revolutionized dental practices,” she said. And “graduating classes are now three times the size of the class of ’83,” she added. “The majority of the graduating class were men back in 1983, but now the majority of the graduating classes are women,” she said with a smile.
Whether helping the underserved patients or lending a helping hand to a dental resident, Gonzales’ career has been focused on helping others.
“I will retire eventually,” she said. “But I’ve known Dr. Balderas and Dr. Lozano-Pineda since they were dental students at UT Health San Antonio, and now they are my supervisors. I really enjoy working with them, and feel that I have a few more years left to help their students.”