National Native American Heritage Month — Spotlight on Dr. Darlene Sorrell
“The feeling that resonated throughout my career has been loneliness. That’s why, in every job I’ve had, I’ve worked hard to mentor and prepare my own replacements, so they are ready to face challenges and feel supported. That’s the kind of legacy I want to leave.”
Over the last few years, there has been increased awareness around the lack of access to oral health care in our country. Right now, nearly 74 million Americans lack access to dental coverage due to a multitude of barriers to care, such as lack of insurance, transportation, inability to take time off work, limited numbers of oral health care providers, and language and cultural barriers. Another significant factor is a lack of representation in the dental field, which compounds barriers to care among underserved populations.
One population that is severely underrepresented are American Indians/Alaskan Natives (AI/AN), making up only 0.3% of the workforce. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate pioneers in the industry who are paving the way for the next generation of dentists — dentists like Dr. Darlene Sorrell.
Dr. Sorrell has spent her lifetime breaking barriers and her career setting up the next generation of dentists for success. She proudly talks about being the very first dentist from the Navajo Nation and co-founder of the Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID), a national, non-profit organization comprised of oral health professionals and students dedicated to promoting and improving the oral health of the American Indian/Alaskan Native community. Now, after a long and fulfilling career, she is using her “retirement” to continue this work. The most recent example is through Nizhóní Smiles, a non-profit dental clinic in the Navajo Nation that provides professional dental and orthodontic services to patients in the Four Corners.
“I was retired for two weeks, and I realized how much I missed patient interaction. At the same time, Nizhóní Smiles was searching for dental providers to join their team. I knew I could help not only with dental care, but with recruitment.”
Dr. Sorrell realized that Nizhóní Smiles needed more dental assistants and dentists to meet patient needs with appropriate care. She got to work, developing a program at Nizhóní Smiles to train new dental assistants, starting with community members.
“We’re working to send local community members to be trained in dental assisting. This is a win, win, win as it helps with our local community, dental community and patients,” said Dr. Sorrell. “I’m proud that we’re providing an avenue for people who would like to seek out a new career opportunity.”
Her work has made a real impact — not just in her community, but among prospective dental students. Ivanna Bennett, a dental admissions test (DAT) prep student who is in the process of applying to dental schools, knows this first-hand.
“I first met Dr. Sorrell during my first SAID conference in 2017 and when it came time for me to earn shadowing hours for my dental school application, she immediately offered to help. I had the opportunity to shadow Dr. Sorrell at Nizhóní Smiles and learn from her expertise.”
Providing avenues and opportunities for prospective AI/AN dental students to learn more about dentistry is essential to increasing the diversity of the dental profession. DentaQuest is a proud supporting sponsor of SAID and has contributed $50,000 to fund a program designed to support American Indian college students and graduates with academic coaching, test preparation and mentoring to enter into and excel within the dental profession.
“American Indian people are a proud people. We work hard and don’t ask for handouts,” said Dr. Sorrell. “Now we’re working to create an environment and avenue for people to receive an education. We’re setting them up for success.”