New and Improved Chompers
UNC-Chapel Hill alumna Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell leads the way in improving dental care for the families who need it most.
Before UNC-Chapel Hill alumna Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell even finished her degree in dentistry, she wanted to help underserved people in central North Carolina. “I wanted to help the less fortunate, to level the playing field,” she says.
Dr. Harrell began her career working in community clinics and serving as dental director for the Cumberland County Health Department. In 1997, she jumped at the chance to work for FirstHealth of the Carolinas, a non-profit hospital network that was just starting up. It was her dream to direct a program from scratch.
Leaders at FirstHealth identified dental care as the No. 1 unmet need for low-income children in Hoke, Moore and Montgomery counties. At the time, nearly half of the children in those counties were getting little to no dental care. And of the 35 dentists in the region, only three participated in publicly assisted programs.
Dr. Harrell opened the first pediatric FirstHealth dental clinic in 1998 in Southern Pines, N.C. Most of her first patients hadn’t seen a dentist in years—if ever—and many were emergency cases. “I was amazed that some of them had endured pain so long. Many of the kids would come in crying in pain,” Dr. Harrell says.
More than a decade later, the picture is much different at Dr. Harrell’s Southern Pines clinic. “Now, kids come in smiling,” Dr. Harrell says. Jake Mauldin, age 7, was perfectly happy to have his teeth cleaned. He has 20 of the 380,000-plus chompers Dr. Harrell has brightened over the years.
Dr. Harrell and her team focus on making patients feel special, which she does easily with her warm smile, gentle demeanor and treasure chest of kid prizes. Although Dr. Harrell is now the director of three FirstHealth dental clinics, she continues to see patients each week.
Throughout her career, Dr. Harrell has mentored more than 50 new or aspiring dentists, dental hygienists and assistants. She has challenged graduates of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry to provide at least $10,000 per year in care for Medicaid recipients in North Carolina.
Thanks to Dr. Harrell—and countless more dentists she has inspired—more North Carolinians are smiling. “It’s not only about filling cavities,” Dr. Harrell says. “It’s about filling a big need in our community.”