Inside USD

Student Brightens Smiles in Tijuana

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Don’t waste your time trying to figure out who Ryan Brennan is if you’ve only had a brief interaction with him. Yes, he’s a USD junior. Yes, he’s the one with the camera, roaming around campus taking photos for The Vista. But even though he loves photography and is the paper’s photo editor, he’s not a communications major.

You might be surprised to learn that he spends much of his time in the Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology, studying complex DNA. But the biochemistry major isn’t really interested in becoming a chemist or researcher. He does put a lot of time into leading a group of students and practicing dentists on monthly trips to the Colonia La Morita community in Tijuana, Mexico, and this work is more in line with his ultimate goal — becoming a dentist.

Brennan received a $7,000 grant from USD’s Trans-Border Institute to start the Casa San Eugenio Dental Project. He formed the USD Dental Club, which allows students to get hands-on dental experience while giving back to the community. Each month, four to five USD students interested in dentistry travel to Tijuana with a dentist to perform cleaning and sealants on patients and to teach the importance of oral healthcare.

The students have worked with Collin Ito, a dentist from Phoenix, Ariz.; Steven Frimtzis from Indian Wells; and San Diego dentist James Mahooti. The group provides free dental care for roughly 10 to 20 patients each visit, performing extractions and fillings as well as teaching oral healthcare to residents who cannot afford dental care. San Diego’s Patterson Dental Group assisted the group by purchasing initial dental supplies. USD’s Community Service-Learning also assisted by offering transportation. To date, the students have made six trips to the clinic.

Brennan doesn’t leave his camera bag behind. He plans to produce a photography exhibit to document the students’ work. The students believe the project addresses a need far beyond basic dental care.

dentalclub2“This project relates to the U.S.-Mexican border due to the difference we will encounter in healthcare service and availability of dental and medical care,” Brennan wrote in his grant application. “This will also allow us explore the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship as it is related to healthcare. From this project, I hope that our club will be able to reach out to a community in need and learn about the U.S.-Mexican relationship while also practicing dentistry.”

Brennan became intrigued with the clinic during a Spring Break service trip last year; that trip sparked his interest in starting the dental club. In the midst of planting trees and cleaning around the clinic, he proposed the idea of a dental club to Father Pablo Wilhelm, who runs the Casa San Eugenio mission, which includes a medical/dental clinic, a church and a community center. Wilhelm and the clinic’s resident dentist were receptive to Brennan’s plan.

The student’s fervor has impressed many on campus.

“TBI is extremely fortunate to work with Ryan,” TBI assistant director Charles Pope said. “The compassionate service exhibited by Ryan and his fellow students is absolutely inspiring. While there is no doubt that Ryan’s project is making a meaningful impact in the community, it is also providing a terrific opportunity for Ryan and his peers to collaborate across the border and gain a cultural awareness which should be a part of every student’s education.”

Brennan’s hope is that the project will continue beyond his time at USD. Students in the club already have applied for another grant.

“My goal is to come back as a dentist in five years and be able to attend one of the trips I started, as a dentist,” he said.

— Denise T. Ward

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