Most children dread the dentist, but not the young patients of Berkeley graduate Pamela Arbuckle, Alameda County's only social service dentist.
The low-income youngsters' fondness for Arbuckle is most unusual since many are immigrants who don't speak English. Some have never seen a dentist's office, with its drills and X-ray machines.
"And parents," said Arbuckle, "equating substandard care with a social service clinic, sometimes stand next to me while I work, to make sure I do a good job."
To ease fears, Arbuckle uses her big smile, clear explanations and visual aids to bridge cultural, language and age barriers.
Lining the clinic's walls are posters by school children depicting visits to the dentist; a giant world map where patients mark their native country with a pin, and photos of smiling children getting treatment.
Not all of Arbuckle's patients are soothed by artwork, however. As a volunteer dentist at the maximum security North County Jail, Arbuckle has treated criminals including serial killers and armed robbers.
"These guys think they're tough," she said. "But in the dentist's chair, you can see their fear."
At the jail, Arbuckle gets scared, too.
"The first thing I do is cheerfully yell, 'Good Morning!' Then I tell jokes, act silly and do whatever it takes to get them to smile," said Arbuckle. "If I can get them to smile, I feel safer."
Arbuckle, who received a BA in economics in 1977 and an MA in public policy in 1984, both from Cal, often dispenses wisdom on the job. She tells her patients to respect themselves and others, to explore opportunities and to pursue an education.
"I was one of nine kids raised by my mother on welfare in a rough Oakland neighborhood," she added. "I understand where a lot of these people come from."
Founder of the California Alumni Association's mentorship program, Arbuckle mentors Berkeley students at her clinic. She tells them that giving back to the community can be more rewarding than a lucrative private practice.
"It's not glamorous, and many doctors consider it a low-status position," said Arbuckle. "But they don't get what I get from this. This is where I belong."
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by D. Lyn Hunter
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