State-funded program provides oral care to area children

Dr. O.T. Rozell, Clovis dentist of 50 years, examines Anthony Gonzales on Tuesday morning at Cameo Elementary. Gonzales, a fifth-grader, said he liked having his teeth cleaned. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Tonya Garner: CNJ staff writer

“Aguja?”

Dr. O.T. Rozzell said he has heard the Spanish word for needle more times than he can count in the last five years in his work as a traveling dentist. The question is posed to him by his young patients who have not had access to regular dental visits.

“Most of them don’t speak any English,” Rozzell said. “I speak just enough Spanish to make it dangerous.”

Two to three times a week, the 79-year-old retired dentist joins a mobile dentistry team called Educare, which travels to area elementary schools. Rozzell said the purpose of the state-funded program is to provide dental services and oral hygiene education to indigent children. Rozzell said he is able to clean teeth, apply sealants, fill cavities and even perform extractions if needed.

“We have seen an 85 percent reduction in decay among these children since we started,” Rozzell said.

Rozzell said he does have to administer shots, but does his best to make the entire procedure as pleasant as possible for the “little rascals.”

Golf shirts and khaki pants are the uniform of choice for the gray-haired dentist. He said he chooses the clothes so the children won’t be scared of him. “These kids are just so cute chattering away in English and Spanish,” Rozzell said. “It is rare but sometimes one will be too scared to come in for treatment.” Rozzell said nine times out of 10, the scared child eventually gives in after being reassured by peers.

Rozzell’s youngest daughter, Nancy Rogers, is a dental hygienist who has worked with her father through Educare. She described her dad as being a gentle dentist who is quick with a smile or kind word. “He is very warm,” Rogers said. “He is known for being painless.”

Rogers said she traveled with her father during his first year of service with Educare. “We worked in some amazing places,” Rogers said. The dental hygienist said they set up their dental equipment in gyms, classrooms and sometimes even closet-sized storage rooms.

Rogers fondly recalls working side by side with her father at the School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. “I kept hearing Dad telling the kids everything was OK,” Rogers said. “I had to keep reminding him he had a mask on, and they couldn’t hear him.”

Rozzell is at ease with his young patients because he has been practicing dentistry on patients spanning four generations. Rozzell said he was born and raised in Clovis and served in World War II and the Korean War before finally settling into a local practice on Main Street. “The office is still there,” Rozzell said. “I would love to see some new young dentists there.”

Rogers said her father’s career has spanned 50 years. He was president of the New Mexico State Board of Dental Examiners in the late 1960s and was also president of the New Mexico Dental Association in 1976. He raised three daughters who all chose to become dental hygienists and has a grandson who attends dental school.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Rozzell was honored at the Marriott Hotel in Albuquerque by the New Mexico Dental Hygiene State Convention attendees. He was presented a framed certificate proclaiming him an honorary member of their association. Rogers said her father was instrumental in helping the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque begin a dental hygienist program.

Rozzell said he retired once before back in October of 1994 and enjoyed “golf and loafing around.” He said he plans to retire for good “in about a year.”

“I’m 79,” Rozzell said. “I’m mentally ready to stop.”