Khushbu Shah of Mount Prospect played tennis and badminton at Prospect High School, but it was her experiences with the Service Club that made the biggest impact.
"It left me wanting to help others," says Shah, who graduated in 2004 and went to Loyola University for a biology degree.
Recently, Shah spent four weeks in a small, rural village in northwest Guatemala, completing a four-week rotation as part of her last year at the University of Illinois at Chicago Dental School.
She and two classmates treated children at the Salud Y Paz dental clinic in the village of Camanchaj. UIC students have gone to the mountainous region for six years as part of a community-based dental education course required for all senior students.
Through partnerships with UIC's Prevention and Public Health Services, dental students also treat patients at clinics in Chicago and the suburbs, including those run by the Infant Welfare Society, Hines VA Hospital, the Lake County Health Department and Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
"The course is about issues of access to care, health disparities and social justice," says Dr. Casewell Evans, associate dean for Prevention and Public Health Sciences at UIC's College of Dentistry.
"These are topics not often considered in dentistry," he adds, "yet, in Guatemala, the students received an intense and unfiltered exposure to these factors."
In all, Shah and her classmates treated 48 schoolchildren, doing cleanings, extractions, fillings and root canals. The majority were Mayan, whose families live on as little as $1 a day.
"It really opened my eyes to the need for dentistry," Shah says, "and the lack of access to care in the dental field."
They set up shop in a facility that lacked many of the state-of-the-art features they were used to at UIC. It had three operating chairs, including two donated by UIC, and the third, a portable, cardboard chair for extractions.
"For many of them, their teeth were filled with cavities," Shah says, "so it was important to do multiple cavities in one appointment."
Evans says they were able to relieve much of the children's' dental pain, and their families were grateful.
"This was essentially the first dental care these children received and, unfortunately, may well be the only care they will ever receive," Evans said. "What the students saw was the tough reality of dental disease and cavity rates that far exceed anything they -- and for that matter most dentists -- ever will encounter."
Shah graduated from UIC in May and she hopes to join a suburban general practice soon. But wherever she lands, the knows her rotation in Guatemala will stay with her.
"There is an indescribable feeling of joy that overcomes you when helping others," she says, "and seeing their smiles of appreciation. It was an experience I will treasure forever, and I definitely plan to carry it on in the future."