FirstHealth's Dental Director Wins National Honor
During more than 14 years in dentistry, nearly nine as director of the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers, Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell has mentored more than 50 new or aspiring dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants -- students from community colleges as well as major universities.
Because of her influence, some have gone into pediatric dentistry. She has introduced all to the unique sensitivities of disadvantaged patients.
"Of course, I want to educate students about excellence in clinical dentistry," Harrell says, "but I want more than only clinical training for my students. I want them to understand the challenges that many patients face in obtaining dental care, such as lack of transportation, inability to take off work to get to the dentist and no reliable phone service."
Earlier this summer, the American Dental Association's (ADA) Committee on the New Dentist recognized Harrell with its Golden Apple Outstanding Leadership in Mentoring Award for her work with young dental health professionals.
"It was very humbling for me," Harrell says.
Acknowledged as a supporter of new and aspiring dental health professionals -- those who do clinical rotations through the Dental Care Centers as well as those who seek out her advice, Dr. Harrell defines a mentor as "a wise and trusted counselor."
"No matter how long you've been in practice, you can be a mentor," she says. "To high school students, to a new dental assistant in your practice, anyone. I can't tell you how many times I've had young dentists tell me, 'You said encouraging words to me at a time when I really needed to hear that.' We often don't realize the power of our words, especially our words of encouragement."
FirstHealth of the Carolinas, with the endorsement of the North Carolina Dental Society, nominated Harrell for the Golden Apple Award, which was presented during the Committee on New Dentist Awards Luncheon June 24 in Boston.
Established in 2000, the ADA Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Leadership in Mentoring annually recognizes an individual who has demonstrated outstanding initiative and leadership as a mentor. Judged by the ADA Committee on the New Dentist, this award recognizes individuals who mentor grade school, high school and undergraduate students considering a career in dentistry, dental students, recent graduates, new dentists or other professionals in dentistry.
Winners have demonstrated a commitment to the profession of dentistry through their experience, positive influence and desire to see their protgs succeed.
Dr. Jennifer S. Massey, a Seven Lakes dentist, wrote one of several letters supporting Harrell's nomination. The two met during Harrell's tenure with the dental clinic operated by the Cumberland County Health Department.
"I was a high school student interested in dentistry," Massey said in her letter. "Dr. Harrell gave me the opportunity to volunteer in the dental clinic during my summer vacation. She taught me dental basics and answered questions about the dental profession. She has incredible patience and the ability to make you feel as though no question is insignificant.
"To see a successful female dentist who was able to balance a career and family was extremely encouraging. This mentoring relationship confirmed my desire to pursue a career in dentistry."
Another letter was written by Christina Powers of Highfalls, a 2006 graduate of the UNC School of Dentistry who spent several weeks in a rotation with the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers.
"I had very limited experience when I started my rotation," she said. "Dr. Harrell worked with me with such kindness and patience. My confidence really grew while at FirstHealth. (Dr. Harrell) took extra time to ensure that every step of a procedure was done correctly. I think I was most impressed with her behavior management techniques.
"She has the special ability to take a challenging child and make that child comfortable and cooperative. It is also very clear that her focus is to provide care to children who have limited access to care. She treats her young patients and parents with respect, and shows genuine compassion and care. Her patients receive top care in excellent facilities with a caring staff."
A native of Rockingham, Harrell received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also earned a master's degree in public health. After receiving her degree in dentistry from UNC's School of Dentistry, Harrell worked with a federally funded community health center in York, Pa., and then spent six years as dental director of the Cumberland County Health Department.
She joined FirstHealth of the Carolinas in November 1997 and now supervises the operation of three FirstHealth Dental Care Centers: a full-time clinic in Southern Pines, which provides dental care for underprivileged children from Richmond, Lee and Harnett counties as well as Moore County, and part-time operations in both Raeford and Troy.
Harrell lives in Pinehurst with her husband, Michael, and 8-year-old son, Brandon.
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