Inside Dental Assisting
Eve Cuny, MS
Director of Environmental Health and Safety
Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry
The University of the Pacific
In her varied career, the most unusual moment for Eve Cuny occurred in East Africa. She had stood in front of hundreds of dental students, dispensed advice to her peers, delivered lectures to dentists and others from throughout the world, and provided infection control information to the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But she had never imagined herself in the home of a president of a foreign country.
President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of Tanzania welcomed Cuny and her companion, Dr. Marion Bergman. Cuny had joined Bergman in Tanzania to devote time to the nonprofit called Miracle Corners of the World, an international organization that empowers youth to become positive agents of change and to contribute to their communities.
“That was a great experience,” Cuny says. “He is a president who is very motivated to try to make things better for the people.”
Cuny is on the advisory board of Miracle Corners of the World, and with the group, she is actively working to educate people in Tanzania to build programs to train dental professionals and provide dental care. Cuny’s skills as an infection control expert, strategic planner at a university, dental assistant, and a professor have been invaluable in helping to shape the future of Tanzania’s dental education program.
“I enjoy this work very much. It is something that I never thought I would do, but it was an opportunity,” she says.
One of the leading infection control experts for dentistry in the country, Cuny is Director of Environmental Health and Safety at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry and associate professor in the Department of Dental Practice at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, California. She is also a consultant to the American Dental Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs. She has written and lectured about infection control and safety in dentistry.
From the start of her career, Cuny has been highly motivated to help others, whether it’s through dental assisting, teaching, orphilanthropy. At the center of everything she has done has been the topic of infection control.
“Infection control is a universal need in healthcare delivery. Everyone can agree on its importance, but not everyone can agree on how to apply the principles and the need for all recommended precautions,” Cuny says. “This presents two interesting challenges. One is the continuous need to seek knowledge—there are more potential areas of research and study than there are people with the desire and expertise to undertake them. The other challenge is to communicate the knowledge to the frontline healthcare workers in a way that makes them feel they are safe in their work environment and that they feel confident they are providing a safe and appropriate environment for their patients.”
Cuny remembers when the infection control standards were less clear. It was 1984 when Cuny began her first dental assistant teaching job at the University of the Pacific after being a chairside dental assistant for 8 years. The year was also when this “new” disease known as AIDS began to grab the headlines, fill up hospital beds, and stir up fear in Americans.
“We were more aware of infection control because of the AIDS pandemic. We were trying to figure out what we were supposed to do. At the time, we didn’t wear gloves routinely or any of the protective attire. In 1984, there weren’t any CDC guidelines to look to. There weren’t OSHA regulations on bloodborne pathogens yet. As a dental assistant, I was part of a team that was very involved in infection control,” she says. Those changes wouldn’t come until later.
In 1986, Cuny was approached by the school’s infection-control coordinator, asking her to teach some continuing education courses on infection control. Cuny, who was teaching a course on four-handed dentistry, eagerly agreed to teach continuing education. She soon became involved in the school’s infection control committee. When the infection control coordinator left the school in 1988, Cuny was offered the position. “As a registered dental assistant who was actively seeking knowledge in infection control, I was uniquely qualified. I understood dentistry and dental procedures, and I knew infection control,” she says.
“It was my obligation to ensure I had the most comprehensive knowledge of the topic possible. I relied on mentors at my school and the experts that were already out there to expand my own knowledge base,” she says. Instrumental in her work at the University of Pacific were Dr. Bill Carpenter who was an oral pathologist and Dr. Peter Jacobsen, who lectured about infection control.
“They were both mentors who meant a lot to me, particularly in the early years of working through my career path because there was no formal training program in dentistry on infection control. You had to go out and find all the information yourself. I did that and took a lot of continuing education courses,” she says.
Along the way, she defined her role at the school in what she says was the right environment to do that. “People working at the University of the Pacific are valued about all else. I was never told ‘no’ when I asked for something that was going to make it a safer place to provide care and for students to learn and people to work,” she says. She valued that environment so much that she never left.
While working at the university, she finished her undergraduate degree and raised her family. When she finished her BA degree program, she decided she should get her master’s. By 2001, Cuny had added a master’s degree in health services administration to her credentials. During that time, she held several positions on the board of directors, including board chair, for the Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention (OSAP). Today, she is still an active and impassioned member and works on OSAP’s behalf as a consultant for the education committee for the Federation Dentaire Internationale. She also helped author the World Health Organization’s Infection Control in Practice Oral Health Care, which is an infection control guide shared with member countries. She is the editor of the organization’s guide for infection control in humanitarian aid missions.
The author of numerous papers, Cuny has seen her career expand far beyond what she expected. She remembers her start as a dental assistant as a time of exploration, education, and understanding. When she had left high school, she initially planned to be a grade-school teacher, but she learned it was not a career for her. “I loved children, but I didn’t think I could do this for 30, 40 years.” A friend, who enjoyed her new career as a dental assistant, provided Cuny with the inspiration she needed to shift direction and attend school to become a dental assistant. She says she is glad she made the decision.
“Each role I had as a dental assistant, I learned something more from the dentist there, and they really made sure that I understood everything they were doing to help me be a better dental assistant. I was really lucky,” she says.
Today, nearly 30 years into her career, Cuny has no regrets.
“I am so happy with where I ended up. I wouldn’t do it differently. I never said, ‘I hope someday I will be that.’ It’s along the way you don’t always see the road, but I am happy where it led me. There are times I didn’t see it. I placed my trust in the future, and for me, it worked out. It wasn’t always easy. I didn’t always love it. But in the end, I am glad where I ended up. I am really satisfied personally and professionally,” she says.
Marking that passion and commitment is awards. Cuny has received the James Crawford OSAP Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Infection Control and Safety, which is the organization’s highest award. She also received the award for Merit from the Northern California section of the American College of Dentists for outstanding activities contributing to the advancement of the dental profession and the image of dentistry. The Dugoni School of Dentistry highest award gave her the Medallion of Distinction for contribution to leadership within the dental school.
Today, Cuny says she welcomes the opportunity to mentor dental assistants in their careers. She says it’s best that assistants forge networks of peers and suggests that they attend symposiums, such as OSAP’s, where they can meet people. Through that kind of networking, assistants can find mentors and then perhaps be mentors to others later on.
“Lifelong learning is important no matter what it is you want to do, whether you are in dentistry or a professional surfer. You have to be a lifelong learner to get anywhere,” she says.
Part of being an empowered learner is accepting constructive criticism, Cuny notes. “You have to be open to the opinion of others and always think of the fact that you aren’t always right and accept that as a learning experience. You have to believe in yourself and your own abilities. Even if you don’t feel confident about something, a lot of times if you can act confident, you will keep moving forward. But it is also important to be humble.”
Cuny says she feels she still is not done. She has work to yet accomplish before she retires her sanitary gloves for good.
“Dentistry is a safe part of healthcare, but I don’t think is 100% as safe as it could be. I want to change the way we look at patient safety in dentistry.”