An eight-year old girl in Vietnam had a toothache that was causing her an intense amount of pain. Her mother gave her money to go find a doctor to fix her tooth. The little girl found a dentist, and after the visit, the pain was gone. A seed had been planted.
Dr. Trang Nguyen —who has recently been named Director of Dental Services at Dorchester House Multi-Service Center (DHMSC) — was that little girl. She has wanted to be a dentist ever since that first fortuitous visit.
Nguyen has had a lengthy journey from when she was eight years old and where she is today, though. She emigrated to Dorchester from Vietnam in 1991 with her mother, father, and two siblings.
Even though she was 18, because of her difficulties with English, Nguyen had to repeat two years at Cathedral High School. It was during this time that she met Dr. Mark Doherty, who would prove to be a career-long mentor to her.
First his patient, then his “apprentice,” she would go to Dorchester House twice a week after school to observe Doherty at work. This gave Nguyen an opportunity to learn dentistry and English.
“Dr. Mark Doherty has mentored me from day one when I met him. We didn’t understand each other at all and somehow he helped me to communicate and to learn dentistry,” said Nguyen.
Even while attending Regis College and pursuing a degree in biochemistry, Nguyen would return to Dorchester House whenever she had time off to work.
She graduated from Tufts University School of Dentistry and received a fellowship from Lutheran Medical Center for an Advanced Education General Dentistry (AEGD) residency at Dorchester House. After she finished her fellowship, she became a full-time provider at the center in 2002.
Nguyen left briefly to work in a private practice, but said it wasn’t a good fit for he. She couldn’t stay away from Dorchester House for long.
In her current role, Nguyen is able to pursue her passion, which is passing on the knowledge she was fortunate enough to acquire as both a patient and employee of Dorchester House: the importance of preventative dental care.
“Where I came from, dental health wasn’t part of medical health. Treating this population has had a great impact on me and I try to get my message across one person at a time,” said Nguyen.
Joel Abrams, the president and CEO of the Dorchester House, says that choosing Nguyen to lead the dental practice was satisfying in more ways than one.
“It’s always to look within for talent, but this goes well beyond looking within,” says Abrams. “She was actually a patient of ours just coming in as a youngster and essentially growing up here. It’s the great American story.”
As part of her job, Nguyen spends Tuesdays in Boston Public Schools, providing dental care. Whether the children are insured or uninsured, she is able to provide care with them including exams, cleaning, and oral hygiene education. This program is called Commonwealth Mobile Oral Health Services (CMOHS).
The newly minted director also has many plans for the dental department at Dorchester House. She would like to see the dental department expand in order to accommodate the large number of patients.
Currently, there is a need for more providers to meet that increasing number of patients. Nguyen said the department’s weakness, but it is her “hope and goal” to see that change.
Part of the way she hopes to bring in more providers is to make a positive enough impact on their Boston University student dentists — who participate in 10-week programs at Dorchester Huse — that they will want to come back as she did, to work in a community health center.
The mother of three young children said that besides mentoring aspiring dentists and treating children in schools, her children are her hobby.
“There’s a lot that I would like to do, but I don’t have enough time,” she said with a laugh.
Nguyen stressed that it was only with the help of all the people she has met at Dorchester House that she was able to be so successful.
“I arrived at the right time and right place,” she said. “I’m just a very lucky girl.”
Abrams says that it’s the Dorchester House and its patients who are lucky: “Personally, she’s delightful. Everyone likes working with her and to mix this wonderful personality with an emerging leadership style, it’s been so exciting for us to see.”