2013 Dental Assistant of the Year
Karrie Schutt, LDA, CDA
St. Paul, Minnesota
A tiny Peruvian house sitting on a landfill seemed to be the last place in the world anyone could expect to find themselves. But 8 years ago, when she was on her first overseas dental mission in Peru, Karrie Schutt, LDA, CDA, did. Recently named the 2013 Dental Assistant of the Year for Inside Dental Assisting, Schutt hopes sharing her experiences can motivate others to venture out into their local or global communities.
“Before going to Peru, I knew I was going to make a difference. I knew we were going to help a lot of people. But I didn’t realize how they would help me,” says Schutt. Although she was no stranger to philanthropic work for families who could not afford dental care, she found this experience powerful and unique.
When Schutt and her team stepped inside the house, which was part of an entire community built within a garbage dump, she saw an immaculate home with pictures of children adorning the walls. “These people were opening their home to us with no hesitation and inviting us to dinner, showing us so much love,” Schutt says. “That was truly life changing for me. It made me realize I need to understand where I am. I’m not here just to give these patients my dental assisting skills; these patients can teach me how to be a better person. If all I do is the work in the office, then I’m just a machine. I don’t want to be that.”
The power of giving back has propelled Schutt in both her work as a dental assistant every day at Metropolitan Pediatric Dental Associates in St. Paul, Minnesota and in her commitment to serving underprivileged children and adults. She has given her time to both local and global communities.
“Karrie finds great satisfaction in using her skills to help those who truly face barriers to dental care and has a very special place in her heart to help and serve others,” says Teresa Fong, DDS, senior partner of Metropolitan Pediatric Dental Associates. “Her commitment to the Minneapolis District Dental Society’s Give Kids A Smile event in February and her leadership with Minnesota’s Mission of Mercy exemplify her heart for helping others. It brings me joy to see the excitement on Karrie’s face when she is hard at work at these events. Karrie is truly deserving of this great honor.”
Schutt’s love of, and commitment to, volunteering began when she was a dental assisting student at the Lakeland Medical Dental Academy in Minneapolis. (The school has since become part of the Minneapolis campus at Herzing University.)
“It started with my instructor, Linda Boyum, and another teacher who has since passed away—Danielle Adams. They connected me with Union Gospel Mission, and that was the seed,” Schutt says. Union Gospel Mission is a nonprofit in Minnesota that helps the homeless and underprivileged get back on their feet. “A lot of people in those situations need us to share what we can do to help them. My teachers taught me that I had to do more.”
When Schutt was younger, she spent her free time volunteering with the Minnesota Dental Assistants Association and Minnesota Dental Association’s Star of the North meeting. “I looked for experiences that took me out of my work situation, and put me in with a group of people who could teach me more than what I already knew. By putting yourself in those situations, you only get stronger for when you are in the practice.” However, becoming a single mother to Tyler and Ashley changed her situation, and Schutt had to rearrange her priorities.
“It came time to put my family first, but I still needed to find new avenues and share what it is to be a dental assistant,” she says. “I loved giving away what it is that I love about assisting.”
Give Kids A Smile and Minnesota’s Mission of Mercy became two of her volunteer platforms and has been her passion for the past 13 years. During these events, she serves as a co-lead dental assistant when her practice cares for homeless and underprivileged families at the Sharing and Caring Hands shelter in downtown Minneapolis. Her daughter, Ashley, has had the opportunity to accompany Karrie to these events on several occasions. She has also volunteered at her children’s schools to teach students about oral hygiene.
“When you start to volunteer, you learn how to listen better; you learn how to accept better; you learn to refocus your thought process—I love that about volunteerism,” she says. “It amazes me when we walk into a room and at first it’s nothing but a gym or a convention center. But within hours, it becomes a makeshift clinic. The doors open and the families walk in, and we will take care of them. We get to leave three times as fulfilled as our patients and their families do. And I love that. We have a gift; we have to share it with our community.”
Eventually, her local efforts led to the international work in Peru when one of the dentists at her practice wanted to go. She has also traveled with a team to Uganda to provide dental care in a rural area in which many patients have HIV or AIDS and have no access to dental care. She is planning a return trip to this same outpatient clinic in early 2014.
“Volunteerism knows no borders,” Schutt says. “The second biggest gift we give ourselves by volunteering is observing as new dentists and new assistants come in and intermix with their experienced peers. Seeing that love and excitement for what they are learning is priceless. They are our future.”
Schutt enjoys working with the dental assisting students who come into her practice to do their internships and externships. “The one thing I always tell them is: ‘If you are not learning even one little thing by listening to your dentist or your patient, poke yourself. Ask yourself why.’ You should be learning something from the people you are working with everyday. One of the great aspects of dentistry is learning from each other.”
The encouragement of a close friend who was a dental assistant brought Schutt to this career. What appealed to her about dental assisting was the opportunity to help educate people and to be working with them every day. Today, Schutt’s expanded dental assisting training includes sealants and administration of nitrous oxide. She encourages her colleagues to get as much training and education as possible. “The more dental assistants educate themselves and the deeper they get into the profession, the more valuable it makes them as as they go forward in their careers. When people ask me whether they should get that certification, I always say, ‘How could you not?’”
After practicing for 20 years, Schutt believes that dental assistants possess hidden value. “As a dental assistant, you make a difference every single day. You have the ability to take someone and help improve their life and health. It’s not just about sitting chairside. As a dental assistant, you are there to educate and take away the fear of going to the dentist.”
Dental assistants aren’t just there handing the dentist instruments, she explains. “We’re there as a team. We sometimes see things that help dentists do their job better. We might see that little twinge in a child or that question in the eye of a parent. And then we can say to the dentist, ‘You know, I think that mom might need a little extra minute of your time.’”
If there is ever a day when Schutt can no longer meet the physical demands of being a dental assistant, she would like to become a dental assisting teacher. “If I hadn’t taken this journey and met the women at Lakeland who loved what they did, I would not be here today, working with these people. I wouldn’t change a thing. The choices and paths I’ve taken are the best decisions I could make for my family and myself.”
She wants dental assistants to recognize their value and understand that they are extraordinary, because dental teams cannot function without them. “I don’t like to hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m just a dental assistant.’ They say it as if it’s not acceptable or it’s just a job they took to pay the bills. But to make this job pay off for you, to make it valuable for you, you should be darn proud to be a dental assistant. We are more than just handing the dentist an instrument. We are two to three steps ahead of the dentist, thinking all the time. We are a force to be reckoned with.”