Open Wide, Say Ah

Open Wide, Say Ah

What happens in your mouth can affect your entire body.

That’s Dr. Waletha Wasson’s message–a message she delivers far beyond the classrooms of the UT College of Dentistry. Wasson is one of the originators of Tennessee Smiles–a program to help citizens realize the importance of good oral health.

“Tennessee Smiles is an awareness program to help people know how important dental health is,” she says. “It can affect your heart or your unborn baby–literally your whole body.”

Wasson (Health Science Center ’79) and her colleagues are victims of their own success. There’s such demand for Tennessee Smiles to be a part of health fairs and school and church events in the Memphis area that she’s scrambling to find other dentistry faculty members who’ll join the volunteer brigade.

“Sometimes we’ll be invited to three health fairs on the same day,” Wasson laments. “If I can’t go or get someone else to go, I’ll send information and toothbrushes.” With faculty duties from 8 to 5 on weekdays, only weekends are free for the outreach work.

She and the other principals of Tennessee Smiles, dentistry faculty members Mary Aubertine, Van Himel, Maurice Lewis, and Martha Woods, aren’t new to community service. “We did oral screenings for years and spent a lot of Saturdays at health fairs. A couple of years ago, I said, ‘This program needs an identity,’ and we came up with “Tennessee Smiles: UT Grass Roots Oral Health Outreach Initiative.”

“It just spilled off my tongue!” Wasson laughs. “The program isn’t just for underserved populations, but that’s the way it usually works out.”

Wasson knows accountability is important to her faculty position. She needs to be able to show how many Saturdays the faculty spends at health fairs and how many people are touched. “When I go to a health fair and refer someone to a healthcare professional, I want to know if they went,” she says. “So we’re trying to do a survey that will give us feedback.”

For one who’s so enthusiastic about oral health, Wasson didn’t set out to study dentistry: “I was valedictorian of Riverside High School in Chattanooga, and I was going to be an engineer. I was always good in math.” But when she got to Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, her plans changed and she majored in science. Next stop was the UT College of Dentistry in Memphis, where she was the only African American in her class.

She credits her professors at Tennessee Tech and UT for their support along the way, and she wants to do the same for other young people. At health fairs, she not only examines mouths but also encourages education and dentistry careers.

“When I work with youth, I like to use pictures and show individuals from the local community who are dentists and who could be mentors. I really enjoy letting young people know you can have a clean mouth and a career in this field. I ask them if they have goals. I tell them, if you don’t have anyone to look up to, remember me.”

When Wasson won a Memphis Business Journal Healthcare Heroes award recently, she said she felt an obligation to return kindnesses paid to her.

“I owe the people who helped me. When I needed my wisdom teeth removed while I was in dentistry school, a member of the faculty–Dr. Harold Taylor–did it for me and didn’t charge. He told me he wanted me to do the same type of thing for someone else.

“Always help one person. That’s a wise thing to do.”