WVU dental student spends two weeks at the "Top of the World"

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sawan Prabhu, a fourth-year dental student at the West Virginia University School of Dentistry, spent two weeks in Barrow, Alaska, doing a dental externship through the Indian Health Service (IHS).

From May 5 until May 16, Prabhu worked in the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital Dental Clinic for nine to 10 hours per day. The clinic was built in 2013 and includes top-of-the-line equipment.
Prabhu practiced both independently and alongside staff dentists to treat patients, most of whom were members of the Alaska Native Inupiat people. She performed new exams and emergency cases and participated in a demonstration of sealants to first through fifth graders in a Barrow school.

According to Prabhu, her experience in the WVU School of Dentistry Student Clinic prepared her well for the externship.

“I was one of the externs that had a lot of clinical experience. There are some people at the externship that really haven’t touched a patient before; they’ve only done things on mannequins. So I was happy that I had experience behind me,” Prabhu said.

The professional-level expectations of the externship were a challenge, especially regarding efficiency. The WVU student clinic schedules three hours per appointment, compared to the hour and a half allowed at the externship clinic.

“This experience definitely did open my eyes to what I need to work on, but after this coming year, I should be good. This externship gave me a lot of confidence,” Prabhu said.

Barrow calls itself the “Top of the World.” Located above the Arctic Circle, the city is a self-sufficient modern community surrounded by tundra and accessible only by plane. The native language is Inupiaqi, but in Barrow, most residents also speak English.

Because the ground routinely freezes and thaws, houses are built on wooden stilts to keep them out of the mud. The outsides of the houses are painted bright colors and built sturdily to resist the extreme weather conditions.

All outside goods must be flown in, so grocery products cost a premium.

“The first day I bought a loaf of bread, half a gallon of milk, butter, and eggs,” Prabhu said, “and that cost me $35.”

Due to instability in the arctic ice, Prabhu was unable to experience some of the local color, such as dogsledding, polar bears, and whaling, but she did experience 24-hour daylight.

Prabhu is interested in public health dentistry like that practiced at the clinic in Barrow. She is considering pursuing work with IHS at one of their sites nationwide.

“I’m still weighing my options. I’ve got a year to decide. I’m really interested in the Indian Health Service, and being up there and seeing the people and the work that they did and how much they really cared, that’s definitely somewhere where I see myself,” Prabhu said.

The Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Photo caption: Sawan Prabhu holds a WVU pennant by the sign for the “Top of the World,” Barrow, Alaska.
For more information: Angela Jones-Knopf, News Service Coordinator, 304-293-7087
sf: 06-02-14