A Rwandan refugee, scholar, and recent Tufts University graduate, Dr. Umu shows us the power of the human spirit and how her passion to help others is rooted in love.
By Genni Burkhart
With a global pandemic showing no sign of retreat, along with unprecedented environmental disasters and growing social unrest at home and abroad, there’s perhaps never been a better time to redirect our collective mindset to those that show us how bravery and perseverance of the human spirit can lead you out of the darkest of times. Meet recent Tufts University graduate, Umuhire Ntabana, DMD or as she prefers, Dr. Umu.
Tragedy and Hope
Dr. Umu was just seven years old when her home was looted and burned, losing her parents, aunts, uncles, and three sisters in the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis that began in 1994, killing over 800,000 people. Before this, Dr. Umu’s father, Trojan, was a physician and dentist whose patients traveled from surrounding provinces to see him. Her mother Madeleine was a nurse who loved to laugh. Quiet and loving, she cared deeply for Dr. Umu and her eight older siblings.
Dr. Umu credits the many wonderful people, such as her godmother in Rwanda, who took her in and showed her compassion and hope when she had no place to go. Others include a Holocaust scholar who helped her obtain a scholarship, a dentist who guided her through dental school applications, and the Tufts associate dean who believed in her from their first introduction.
Now a practicing dentist, Dr. Umu resides in Morganton, NC. While she’d like to be a bit closer to her host family in Charlotte, the pandemic influenced where she moved after graduating from Tufts University in Boston, MA earlier this year. Currently working in rural medicine, Dr. Umu has stayed true to her goal of caring for underserved populations as a general dentist for High Country Community Health Center in Morganton. Her patients generally consist of farmworkers, as well as those suffering from drug abuse, mental illness, and homelessness. The clinic offers a sliding pay scale for those who need care but cannot always afford it, including dentistry.
A Day in the Life
Dr. Umu’s day typically starts with seeing her first patient at 8:30 a.m. Reflecting on how much her life has changed since graduation she states, “Dental school was tough. I’m no longer as stressed or as tired as I was in dental school.” Dr. Umu works alone, mostly doing extractions and restorations, as well as seeing patients for diagnosis and treatment plans. On a busy day, she can sometimes end as late as 7 p.m.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources available to provide sedation dentistry to her patients. Pulling from her own experiences when she was young, Dr. Umu remembers her own father, a dentist and “master of distraction” as being able to extract one of her baby teeth without her even noticing. Memories of her father and the compassionate care he gave to his patients have given Dr. Umu a unique understanding. The approach Dr. Umu’s father had has greatly impacted how she treats her own patients. “Practicing dentistry like my late father makes me feel closer to him, and this makes me happy,” she reflects.
Patient education is a big part of Dr. Umu’s daily routine at High Country Community Health. Many of the children she sees cannot afford to go to a pediatrician, let alone the dentist. This is where an organization called Teeth in Need can assist. They’re an outreach program comprised of the Burke County School Nurse Program, local dental offices, and the Good Samaritan Clinic providing financial assistance to patients with the most immediate dental care needs. But as Dr. Umu explains, the needs of her patients often outweigh the available resources.
Dr. Umu’s background has helped her relate to her patients, giving her a tremendous amount of satisfaction in return–especially with the children. She spends a lot of time educating parents on the principles of dental care for their children and finds the lack of education around oral health to be part of a bigger problem in healthcare. For many patients, she’s the first dentist they’ve seen and for some, they’ve not brushed their teeth in years. Dr. Umu is undoubtedly on the front lines, shaping her role to be more proactive. She’s never quick to judge and doesn’t approach any two patients the same. She understands motivation is just as important as patient education, “I realize that you have to take into consideration people’s background, financial status, and their education level to educate them. There’s a big need for more public health programs to educate patients on dental care and best practices for oral hygiene.”
Recent statistics on oral health drives home the point made by Dr. Umu, including:
- More than one in four adults ages 20-64 have untreated dental caries in the U.S. (CDC, 2015)
- By ethnicity, 42% of Black adults and 36% of Hispanic adults have untreated disease, compared to 22% of White adults.
- In North Carolina, 37% of children entering kindergarten have already been affected by tooth decay. These rates almost double in some ethnic, rural, or low-income communities.
Professionally, Dr. Umu has already reached a major professional milestone. She explains, “I have always wanted to work in healthcare and help people who can’t afford to get treatments. No one should be denied basic medical and dental care. My aspiration is to reach more people.” Since graduation, Dr. Umu’s goals have been validated, “I’m doing what I have always wanted to do. Now that I am working, I see that there are so many people who need help. If anything, it has confirmed that being a dentist is exactly what I want to do.”
Diversity in Dentistry Matters
While she’d like to be closer to all of her family members, Dr. Umu realizes how much of an impact she’s making in Morganton. The biggest motivator for Dr. Umu remains her friends and family, but as she says, “Dentistry is a rewarding job. It feels good to know I’m helping people improve their daily lives.” She continues, “Unfortunately, in our society, we are judged based on our race or gender. It keeps me motivated to prove people wrong that I can do what they think I can’t do. As a black, immigrant woman some people don’t expect me to be a doctor. Many times, I’ve entered the operatory room and the patient asks me who is going to be working on them, despite being told that I am coming in the room. I enjoy those experiences.”
Dr. Umu hasn’t lost sight of who she is, possessing a secure sense of self she attributes to the strong female role models throughout her life. “It’s really important for patients to see diversity in the doctors who care for them, particularly dentists,” says Dr. Umu. “Female representation, even during my time as a student was important and impactful. It was important to see female professors in representation and approach. Diversity broadens perspective for all students, not just minorities.”
Words of Advice
In asking Dr. Umu if she had any advice for her fellow dental graduates, she offered words we could all take to heart. “I think what’s helped me the most was to have clear intentions. That will not only help you in how you make decisions but carry you through tough times. Find a mentor and stay in touch with your peers, they’re an important support structure, and you can constantly learn from each other. Hold onto the good experiences and when times get hard remember those experiences–they’ll keep you motivated. And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself, mistakes can be the best teachers. There are many who’ve been exactly where you are right now.”
If you’re interested in learning more about organizations that help refugees and people in need of medical and dental care, the best place to start is by researching organizations in your local community. If you’d like to learn more about organizations specific to this story, follow the embedded links in the article and visit the Mumporeze Project, aimed at aiding in the psychosocial and economic reintegration of women and children residing in the cell of Kibenga, Sector of Ndera, District of Gasabo.
Author: With over 11 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, and news. She resides on the western shores of the Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.