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Column: She is multi-qualified and overachieving. His career choice? Geriatric dentistry

As a child raised by a single mother, Somkene Okwuego had her dental work done at a USC clinic that serves patients regardless of financial status. Last week, I met her in this same building, where the 23-year-old is finishing her freshman year at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry.

With total concentration, Okwuego sanded and polished a temporary crown she was making in a lab where dozens of students practiced on mannequin heads with full teeth.

Patients are mannequins; the students are prodigies.

The four hour lab was coming to an end and Professor Daniel Tevrizian came to check on Okwuego’s work.

California is about to be hit by a wave of population aging, and Steve Lopez is surfing it. Her column focuses on the benefits and burdens of old age — and how some people are challenging the stigma associated with old age.

“She’s got good hands,” Tevrizian told me, giving Okwuego some recommendations and showing how to adjust the crown for the perfect fit. “She is a good listener. She follows through on what she has been told.

Several months ago, Paul Irving, Scholar-in-Residence at USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, advised me to consider the role of young people in meeting the needs of the rapidly aging global population, from housing to healthcare and beyond.

It was good advice, and when I heard that Okwuego wanted to specialize in geriatric dentistry, I contacted her.

Okwuego’s resume on jobs, internships, and volunteering would take up this entire column, so I’ll have to skim through the highlights.

She served as student body president at her Los Angeles Unified High School, the USC Media Arts & Engineering Magnet; she worked as a volunteer hostess at a Kaiser Permanente facility; she mentored young students at the 24th Street Theatre; she drove older patients to medical appointments for a Westside nonprofit.

Somkene Okwuego is optimistic about his future while studying at USC's Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry.

Somkene Okwuego, 23, is optimistic about his future while studying at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry. Okwuego tries to meet a growing need: health care for an aging population.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Currently, in addition to dental school requirements, she occasionally works in the dental office of a homeless service center in Skid Row. And she’s a part-time teaching assistant for a former professor of gerontology, John Walsh, who became a mentor.

I mentioned that at his age I was a complete slacker. Okwuego smiled and told me that she was considering taking another job.

And now?

She is a certified practical nurse, she said, and worked in a nursing facility. They asked her to come back, and she could try sneaking out one day a week.

At various times in her early years, Okwuego wanted to be an artist, engineer, film editor, heart surgeon, and anesthesiologist. She also wants to be fluent in Korean, a work in progress.

    Somkene Okwuego makes a crown during a dentistry class.

Somkene Okwuego makes a crown during a class at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Her role models include her grandfather, a doctor in Nigeria, and her aunt, a dentist in Maryland. And then there was his grandmother, Victoria, who moved from Nigeria to Los Angeles several years ago, suffered a stroke on the plane and spent her final years in nursing homes. “I would go to high school and then I would go straight to the facility,” said Okwuego, who met the nursing staff during a visit to her grandmother’s house.

She has traded shifts with relatives, including her mother, who was educated in Nigeria and works in Los Angeles as a compliance officer.

“We were there every day and made sure she got all her speech therapy and physical therapy,” Okwuego said.

While still in high school, Okwuego took a credit summer course in neuroscience. He was taught by Walsh, who was as impressed with her as she was with him.

“She was amazing,” said Walsh, who spoke to me by phone from Costa Rica, where he’s leading USC students in a project studying factors involved in longer lifespans in a particular community. . (The short answer: a tight-knit community of shared interests, healthy farm-to-table eating habits, and exercise done through work and other daily routines, rather than on gym treadmills.)

Somkene Okwuego inserts a crown on a fake patient.

Somkene Okwuego inserts a crown on a mock patient during a dentistry class at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Walsh considered Okwuego a good fit for USC’s school of gerontology, and he admired her desire to pursue a career in the underserved South Los Angeles community in which she lives.

“I so enjoyed his drive and quest for knowledge,” said Walsh, a popular teacher not only for the depth of his knowledge of age-related diseases, but also of fitness and proper nutrition as a preventive measures. He’s a lifelong surfer who’s been known to start gerontology classes with group stretches.

Okwuego said the summer course “beat me the first week,” and she told Walsh she wasn’t sure she was cut out for science. But she settled in and found the field not only fascinating, but personally relevant.

“I understood what my grandmother was going through on a deeper level,” she said, and became interested in the dynamics of dementia and other age-related illnesses.

Okwuego won a scholarship to USC’s School of Gerontology, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in just four years.

Of course.

Along the way, she says, she convinced two friends who were unhappy with their major to switch to gerontology.

“There are so many sides to it,” Okwuego said. “We’re all getting older every day, and there’s something so humanistic about it. It’s a perfect way to combine science and empathy.

It can be difficult to interest an incoming student in gerontology, Walsh said, because it’s a time of life when aging isn’t on the radar. But Maria Henke, associate dean, said USC’s gerontology program is the largest in the nation and countless career paths are available to graduates of the school, whether they go into nursing. health, academic research, law, housing, technology, financial management, seniors. life or government.

Somkene Okwuego hopes to meet a growing need: the health of an aging population.

Somkene Okwuego helped care for her ailing grandmother, then drove patients to doctor’s appointments while in high school, before graduating from USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. She is now in dental school, aiming to practice geriatric dentistry in South Central, where she grew up.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

“There are so many things we need to do” to prepare for a world in which older adults will soon outnumber young adults, said Henke, who serves on the board of the American Society on Aging. “And gerontology is a good foundation.”

All dentists can treat the elderly, said Piedad Suarez, a USC professor, gerontologist and dentist. But those with a background in geriatrics “can be better providers,” she said, in the same way pediatric dentists meet the needs of young people.

USC announced in January that Okwuego was one of three USC students to receive a National Health Service Corps scholarship that covers dental school fees and requires a two-year commitment to work in a region where access to health care is insufficient. She told me she had friends who went years without going to the dentist.

After making a crown in her lab class the other day, Okwuego sat on a bench near dental school and reflected on her grandmother. The first time she saw her after the stroke, her grandmother was unable to speak “and her face was down”.

Okwuego was not quite 18 when her grandmother died. She said she later learned in gerontology school how “the brain works differently” after an experience like the one her grandmother had endured.

“We noticed that she was very sensitive to music. Her sister helped bring that out because her sister was… her best friend,” Okwuego said. “She lives in London and she flew here and sang church music since they were growing up.”

Her grandmother still couldn’t speak, Okwuego said, but miraculously she was able to sing.

“It was so beautiful.”


Los Angeles Times

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