Health Careers in Alaska

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Dentist

Amanda Gaynor Ashley

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The person…


Amanda Gaynor Ashley always knew she wanted to go into the health care field, but she wasn’t sure whether it would be medicine or dentistry. At the age of 16, she participated in a Rotary high school exchange program and traveled to Finland. The father of her host family was a dentist, and it was this experience that convinced her that the field of dentistry was for her! “My family members were all educators, so I think they were a little surprised at my choice, but they were supportive of my decision.”

Amanda attended dental school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. She also attended night classes to earn a Master’s in Education, focusing on developing materials and methods for a culturally competent and culturally sensitive practice, information she is able to use in her clinic today.

After completing her dental program in 1999, Amanda noticed that there were a lot of dentists in the Philadelphia area. “Sometimes it seemed like there were more dentists than patients, and many dentists had to advertise for patients. I knew private practice in this kind of environment was not for me, so I contacted the Indian Health Service (IHS). Their recruitment strategies really struck a chord with me. I wanted an adventure. I asked IHS which site really needed dentists and was told their number one place that was hard to fill was Barrow, so I told them to send me there!”

Amanda arrived in Barrow in September 1999. She spent the first 2 years working as a staff dentist for the Sammuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital Dental Clinic. In 2001 she became the Dental Director.

Amanda met her husband, Noah Ashley, who works as a wildlife biologist in Barrow, four years ago. They are expecting their first child this summer. When not at work, Amanda enjoys mountaineering adventures. She has climbed Mt. McKinley and peaks in Nepal. She also enjoys cross-country skiing. “One time a few years ago, a few friends and I decided to ski to the nearest village, which is 70 miles away. It took us 4 days and I was surprised to find they had lined up dental patients for me! Apparently the Community Health Aide had heard over the radio that there were 3 people skiing in from Barrow and she figured out it had to be me even thought they hadn’t mentioned my name!”

The job…

One of the things Amanda loves about the field of dentistry is that it is hands-on, as well as creative. “I can take someone’s mouth who may be full of cavities and transform them or I have the ability to provide relief to someone who is in real pain. There are a lot of real dental needs up here and I like that I can make a difference.“

Amanda also loves traveling to the villages to provide dental care. The Dental Clinic in Barrow is responsible for dental care in 5 villages. Each village is visited by a dentist for a total of 4-6 weeks a year. The visits are done quarterly,and the time spent on these trips can range from 4 to 14 days. Amanda currently covers two of the villages, so she spends 8-12 weeks a year away in these villages.

Amanda describes a typical day on her job while in Barrow. “My days usually start at 7 or 7:30. I spend the first half hour or so catching up on paperwork. Then we have our scheduled meetings from 8 to 9 am. These can be staff meetings or a time where we receive training. For example, our current staff is going through a training provided by the University of Washington to teach us how to treat patients with disabilities. From 9 am to noon, I cover the walk-in emergencies. After lunch, as dental director, I am busy with the administrative part of my job from 1-3 pm. And then between 3 and 5 pm we have a Kid’s Clinic, where kids have after-school appointments. They might get fillings, have extractions done and so on. I particularly enjoy this part of the day. I finish up the day with paperwork and am usually on my way home at 6-7 pm.”

When asked if there was anything unique about being a dentist in Barrow, Amanda said their clinic emphasized education and training for all their staff. “Whenever specialists come to Barrow, they are asked to provide 5 hours of continuing education training. We try to get all our staff involved in these trainings. We offer lots of emergency training. This is especially important because when you are traveling to villages, often you end up being the most senior health care provider. You may find yourself in a situation where you need to assist the Community Health Aide with an emergency such as a trauma accident or a childbirth. This is not something a dentist in a city would run across in his/her day to day practice.” Amanda is trained as an EMT, a skill she finds very useful in the more remote northern Alaska villages.

Amanda loves many aspects of her job, but is particularly proud of the outreach her clinic has done for hiring dental assistants. A majority of the currently working dental assistants have been hired from the local community and trained at the clinic. She believes this helps her provide a more culturally competent and culturally sensitive practice.

With the support of the community and hospital administration and board, Amanda has recently instituted a formal outreach program. Besides hiring local community members as dental assistants, the clinic also provides externships for 5 to 10 dental students each year. This has helped mitigate the problem of hiring dentists from outside of Barrow who find they are not a good fit. “That was one of our biggest challenges 3 years ago. We would spend all this money recruiting dentists up here and they would find they didn’t enjoy the Barrow weather or didn’t particularly like having to travel to villages. With the externship program we are able to offer jobs to students who have already experienced life here and who we like. It is a program that has been very successful for us.”

Advice to students…

Amanda says it is very difficult to get into dental school, just as hard as medical school. “I would encourage a high school student who is thinking about becoming a dentist to take high school seriously. Those grades really do matter when trying to get into a dental school.” Amanda suggests taking the most advanced courses possible (such as AP courses) in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.

Amanda also encouraged students to work in a dental clinic, perhaps as an assistant, to get a feel for the profession. “It is important to look at the lifestyle of the profession you want to go into as well. I had considered being a doctor, but I didn’t like their lifestyle. I didn’t want to have to deal with patients dying, or having to run multiple tests to figure out what is wrong with a patient. I like the simplicity of dentistry—you just have to deal with the mouth, not the whole body.”

This page was last updated by janice on January 22, 2007

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