Children Don’t Mind Visiting Dr. Harrell
When Sharon Nicholson Harrell was growing up in Rockingham, her father, a factory worker as was her mother, told his three daughters that they could be whatever they wanted to be — and should not feel limited by traditional roles.
Other fathers gave similar advice in the 1970s, when women and civil rights were emerging as a force.
These daughters listened.
Dr. Sharon Harrell, 49, a practicing dentist, has been director of health services for FirstHealth Dental Care Centers since 1998. She holds three degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, along with a doctorate in dental surgery (DDS) and a master’s degree in public health.
One sister, an obstetrician and gynecologist, is on the faculty at UNC School of Medicine. The other, Tammy Nicholson, is a corporate attorney with RBC in Raleigh.
“Sharon was the oldest, the leader,” Nicholson says. “We saw this in her as kids. She has a love of knowledge that she likes to share with others.”
Harrell narrowed her vocation: “Public health is my first love,” she says. “I always wanted to help the underserved, to level the playing field for kids who don’t have as many opportunities.”
Each month, the Southern Pines dental facility, with branches in Troy and Raeford, serves 1,000 children and teens who are uninsured or Medicaid recipients.
Female dentists were uncommon in North Carolina during the 1960s. With no medical role models in her family and few in the African-American community, Harrell’s choice blossomed from a pain-to-gain experience.
“I didn’t enjoy going to the dentist as a child,” she recalls. “I liked my dentist but not the procedures.” Harrell identified her own fear and the fears that made dental care unpleasant, therefore neglected by others.
Fortunately, her parents were vigilant; their health insurance included orthodontics.
“I was fascinated with the instruments,” Harrell says, but she leaned toward a career in journalism.
Then, because she excelled in science, Harrell qualified for a high school enrichment program sponsored by Duke University. The chemistry, calculus and physics instruction focused on applications in medical professions.
That plus her fascination with braces led her to dentistry — still with a spark for writing.
“My goal was to publish a piece in the Journal of the American Dental Association on how general dentists could manage apprehensive child patients,” she says.
Women, with their soothing manner, are more likely to accomplish this.
After receiving her dental degree, Harrell completed a residency at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, then worked at a federal community health center in Pennsylvania, where she encountered abnormalities of the tongue, cheek, jaw and other oral pathologies, some caused by smoking. Her patients did not understand the importance of regular dental care, although she found that parents took better care of their children’s teeth than their own.
The accomplished young woman met her husband, Michael Harrell, a North Carolinian with a background in engineering, through church friends in Baltimore.
Besides being attractive and articulate, Michael remembers her as “a confident person, very focused in regard to education. We work well together; we believe in getting the most out of every day.”
A lucrative private practice was never Harrell’s goal. She preferred balancing patients with administration. This brought her back to North Carolina, where she served as dental director for the Cumberland County Health Department from 1991 until 1997 — an eye-opening experience.
“We did health fairs and screenings in 50 schools,” Harrell says.
This included examining thousands of mouths with flashlight and tongue depressor.
“There is so much rampant decay among kids — as young as 2 years old,” she says.
Parents often assume baby teeth do not require attention. Harrell’s program informed them otherwise, and also that dental problems may impact overall health and account for school absences.
Convincing parents is one issue. Treating a fearful child is more complex. Here, Harrell’s list of awards and accomplishments pales beside her chairside manner.
“I enjoy having an apprehensive child, getting them relaxed,” she says.
Her method is tailored to the child’s personality: “Some like pampering, others like a firm voice, being in control,” she says.
She has also learned that children do better when the parent is not present.
“If (parents) are in the room the child picks up on their apprehension,” she says.
After the first appointment, parents of children over 5 (and often younger) remain in the waiting room.
Amaya DeMercer, 7, reclines comfortably in a padded chaise. Sunglasses are provided to shield her eyes from the overhead light. A wall-mounted TV tuned to the Cartoon Network holds her attention during a cleaning and checkup.
“I was afraid the first time,” Amaya says, hugging a fuzzy blue elephant. “But she’s a nice dentist.”
Next in the chair is Amaya’s sister, Savannah Carlyle, 11, who comes every month for treatment.
“No problem, they’re cool with it,” the girls’ father confirms.
An upbeat atmosphere helps.
Dr. Harrell sets the tone.
The six-chair office hums along at a quick, efficient pace with Harrell, the other dentists, assistants and hygienists flowing from room to room. Walls are decorated with Norman Rockwells. Children take home pamphlets starring Captain Fluoride, who battles Ginger Vitis. Harrell’s manner is calm and cheerful, her voice lilting, her smile constant, her patter child-friendly.
Occasionally, more is needed. In “Managing Slightly Uncooperative Pediatric Patients,” the paper that in 2003 fulfilled her ambition of publishing in the Journal of the American Dental Association, Harrell explains her methods.
She calls topical anesthetic “sleepy jelly,” and when sedation is required, “sleepy juice.” (Sedation is not used at the FirstHealth facility.) Cavities are “sugar bugs.” If cartoons fail, Harrell tries fairy tales to quiet a crying child.
Harrell calls it multi-tasking.
“Interactions between (general) dentists and children often fail because the dentist is as nervous about treating the child as the child is about seeing the dentist,” she writes.
Since pediatric dentists are not always available, Harrell mentors general dentistry students, graduates and dental assistants in “tell, show, do” techniques. She advises the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on ways to improve the health of the state’s most vulnerable populations — and in 2006 received the Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Leadership in Mentoring from the American Dental Association.
Accolades keep coming. This month she received the Alumni Award from the UNC Department of Public Policy and Management, given to “A renowned graduate who has made substantial contributions to public health policy.”
In a rare moment of pride, Harrell admits that her 12-year-old son call his mom “that famous dentist … who takes care of underserved kids.”
“I can tell he understands our work here,” she says.
For all her accomplishments, Sharon Harrell does not consider herself as making history, rather following her instincts, skills and parental guidance.
Yet in her 1987 UNC dental school class of 62 students, 21 were women but only two of those women were African-American. In 2009, according to the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners, of 4,205 practicing dentists, 995 are women and approximately 165 are African-American women.
“Being female and African-American, there’s pressure to prove yourself in both arenas,” Harrell concedes. “I accept that I have to be better or best. This is a fact, but I think it’s changing.”
Her role in affecting this change is obvious.
“Dr. Harrell’s excellent clinical and administrative skills coupled with her patient interaction … give her the ability to manage the business and personal side of the clinics,” says Dr. George Bussey, chief medical officer for FirstHealth of the Carolinas. “She is a tireless advocate for the dental needs of underserved children — a wonderful asset to the communities FirstHealth serves.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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