Oral Cancer Awareness Month: Dentists making a difference in Buffalo, New York

As a teenager, Dr. Maureen Sullivan’s grandmother, Betty Sullivan, was diagnosed with oral cancer. The prognosis was life-altering for both women, with Betty receiving successful treatment, and Dr. Sullivan becoming inspired to pursue a career dentistry.

Today, Dr. Sullivan serves mostly low-income patients at Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, New York along with her mentee, Dr. Elizabeth Kapral. They often treat patients with a wide range of limitations and diseases, including oral cancer. Dr. Sullivan says early detection is key.

“We found a large number of early cancers last year, and discovering it in the early stages gives patients a 90 percent chance to survive five years,” Dr. Sullivan said. “Any time you can find a cancer early and remove it surgically, that’s making the best of a tough situation.”

Still, Drs. Sullivan and Kapral stress prevention. They said it’s vital young people are aware of the HPV vaccine and the health risks of smoking.

A shared passion for their work

Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Kapral admit that perhaps there would be less organized chaos in another type of dental practice. Yet, they said they wouldn’t change a thing.

“Something all the dentists here have in common is we need to have a lot of things going on,” Dr. Kapral said. “I can get bored pretty easily. At this clinic, we have complicated patients and having to manage their treatment keeps my brain engaged.”

Dr. Kapral said she has learned much more than just dental treatment from her mentor, Dr. Sullivan.

Successful mentors help to build successful careers

“She’s taught me the importance of patient management skills and how to have difficult conversations with them,” Dr. Kapral said. “It’s important to have an understanding of how to explain challenging findings to patients. She has taught me a lot about communications skills with both patients and colleagues.”

After learning about Drs. Sullivan and Kapral, it’s not surprising to hear their clinic recently received a $760,000 grant so that Dr. Kapral can pursue additional training that she can one day pass along to dental students and residents.

But what keeps them going every day? Their patients.

“Some people think that working with this patient population would be sad and depressing,” Dr. Kapral said. “I find it’s inspiring to be around people who are so courageous.”

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