When dental student Mohita Sharma, BDS, (ISP ’23), noticed her patient’s heart rate was higher than usual, neither of them expected it would save his life.
It was a seemingly normal fall day at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM). Patrick Merkle*, 81, arrived for his appointment. He had been a patient of Sharma’s since July 2022. She started the comprehensive exam with his vitals: temperature, pulse, breathing and blood pressure.
“I noticed his pulse rate was higher than usual, compared to baselines I had from previous visits,” Sharma recalled. “He was usually full of energy but said he hadn’t been feeling well lately, so I suggested he should alert his primary care doctor.”
They continued with the appointment and completed a routine filling.
Fast forward a few months: Sharma called Merkle in January to schedule his next appointment. She learned that over the winter break, he did go to see his general practitioner. They referred him to a cardiologist who did an echocardiogram and discovered he had three blocked arteries in his heart; He needs coronary artery bypass surgery, soon.
The Mouth is the Gateway to Overall Health
“Dentists are sometimes the first providers to diagnose something going on in the whole body,” said Sharma. “Dentistry is often considered separate from primary care, but it shouldn’t be. We are taught how the oral cavity affects the whole body and vice versa. That’s why we do a comprehensive exam every time we see a patient.”
Each step of a comprehensive exam—from taking x-rays to recording medical history to an oral cancer screening—can lead to finding issues related to the oral cavity or the whole body.
Oral Health in America: Advances and Challenges, a recent report by the National Institutes of Health, highlights the importance of oral health. CU SDM Professor and Department Chair for Community Dentistry and Population Health, Bruce Dye, DDS, MPH, served as scientific editor and co-director of the report. He said, “it makes it abundantly clear that oral health is integral to overall health and quality of life.”
Sharma’s advice? “It’s important to get your regular check-ups, because you never know what could be going on.”
The Importance of Preventative, Comprehensive Care
Sharma knows first-hand how important it is to be proactive about your own health. She was in a similar situation when she found a small lymph node on her shoulder and decided to get it checked out. Her doctor said most people wouldn’t think to come in for something like this, but it was a good thing she did.
Sharma was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma one month before she was supposed to move to Colorado to begin the Advanced Standing International Student Program (ISP) at CU SDM. She deferred her enrollment and began chemotherapy.
“I feel like my dental training saved my life too,” she said. “I was lucky to be diagnosed at an early stage. Because of that, my treatment was not as bad as it could’ve been.”
On January 24, 2023, Sharma celebrated two years cancer free. She will graduate in December with a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree to practice dentistry in the U.S.
“Defeating cancer and moving across the world to pursue my dreams has been a long journey. With this new chance in life, I feel grateful that I get to do what I love, every single day.”
*Name has been changed; The patient didn’t want to be identified by name but consented to sharing his story.)