By Jane Schmucker
To say that Dr. Tina Brandon Abbatangelo is anything but your run-of-the-mill dentist is hardly an exaggeration.
On the clinical faculty at the School of Dental Medicine at UNLV, “Dr. Tina” – as everyone calls her – is also the reigning Ms. Nevada and the 4th runner-up in the national 2018 Ms. America competition*.
When she’s not overseeing senior dental students on rotation in UNLV’s five-chair dental clinic, Dr. Tina, 46, is regularly providing veterinary dental services to captive exotic animals throughout the country.
She has worked on the teeth of cats big and small – from domestic felines to a 575-pound maneless lion.
She's helped extract a tiger's tooth, which she estimates is four times the size of a human cuspid. Dr. Tina has even served on a team that worked on a camel's mouth; one of 20 attendants involved in just getting the big animal down for a diagnosis.
Dr. Tina's involvement with animal dentistry began in 2006, several years after the University of Iowa College of Dentistry graduate opened her own dental practice. She took her little dog Lola to a veterinarian for a new-puppy exam, and the two health care providers talked about the vet's new X-ray machine and the growing popularity of dental exams for pets.
That fascinated Dr. Tina, who has always loved animals. Indeed, for a time, she considered going to veterinary school to add the letters DVM to her DDS.
Instead, while working weekdays at UNLV, Dr. Tina has volunteered on weekends at exotic animal rescues and sanctuaries around the country.
What's the most significant difference between dental work on humans and wild animals?
"We don't have to deal with insurance!" Dr. Tina says.
Secondly: Animals have no vanity. They don't care if their composite matches their teeth.
Veterinarians might be a different breed, too.
Dr. Tina describes her friends in the animal-health business as an easy-going group of dedicated professionals who can put ego aside and work as an ad hoc team focused entirely on what’s best for the animal patient.
Dr. Tina works with 75 to 80 students a year in the UNLV clinic, which treats about 25 patients a day. In comparison, over the past decade her work with wild animals has typically totaled 20 patients a year, usually squeezed into two weekends a year.
Those weekends with the animals, however, are her big passion. She recently became a member of the newly formed dental advisory board organized by the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation, which promotes the oral and dental health of domestic and captive animals around the world.
In fact, as a winning contestant in the Ms. America pageant, Dr. Tina emphasized and showcased her work on behalf of the foundation. “I throw myself out there in a bathing suit for you,” Dr. Tina says joking with Dr. Peter Emily, founder of the private foundation.
She Has That Aura
Dr. Tina has competed in six pageants and is a two-time winner of the Ms. Nevada title, all with the Peter Emily Foundation as her contest platform, which she harnesses to raise awareness about animal dentistry and the exotic animal trade.
She doesn't talk about the pageants with her UNLV dental students, but those who are observant have figured out who she is, says Julianne Doty, a senior dental student from Las Vegas.
"She kind of has that aura to her," Ms. Doty says, describing how Dr. Tina carries herself and appears calm, composed, and friendly.
Dr. Tina's supervisors at the university -- Wendy S. Woodall, DDS, and Rick B. Thiriot, DDS -- practically interrupt each other with complimentary adjectives describing Dr. Tina. Patient, upbeat, kind, intelligent, well-trained, experienced, creative.
"She's just a jewel," Dr. Woodall says.
"She's very adamant about what she does," Dr. Thiriot adds.
As if her life isn’t already teaming with sufficient activity, Dr. Tina wrote a rhyming children’s book about helping wild animals with toothaches, and is working on a cartoon strip about animal dentists and the creatures they help.
One sketch in her book, Animal Dentistry Adventures, begins:
"Chuckles the chimp,
so energetic and smooth,
Is feeling a bit down from
a tooth that won’t soothe.”
Enter Dr. Tabby – animal dentist extraordinaire, Dr. Tina’s cartoon personification. Dr. Tabby and her team step in to help Chuckles the chimp.
"It’s done quickly and quietly;
resistance there was none.
He didn’t even know what hit him.
He had no time to be stunned.
"Equipment is packed up,
and tools are sterilized.
They’re off to the next adventure
with Chuckles stabilized."
"Dr. Tabby is everything I want to be when I grow up," Dr. Tina writes in the book's preface. "She is brilliant, talented, and kind. She is a true humanitarian and animal lover."
Before Animal Dentistry Adventures came out this year, Dr. Tina had never written anything for children.
Chimp on the Run
Although not as challenging as having to deal with a chimpanzee who once unexpectedly came out of anesthesia when its hands weren’t tied down, Dr. Tina the author discovered it's hard to describe advanced dental work in a way that's both accurate and simple enough for young readers to understand.
Nevertheless, Dr. Tina persisted and proudly reports that 150 of the 200 books that she self-published quickly sold. Amazon offers the Kindle version.
Taking on new challenges, Dr. Tina explains, is all about making the most of her time on Earth.
"I don't want to live a life of any regrets," she says.
* Not to be confused with the Miss America pageant; the Ms. America competition is for women 26 years of age and older who are single, divorced, widowed or married. The four areas on which contestants are judged are: evening gown, interview, sportswear, and on-stage question.
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.
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