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Cover Story: Making a difference in Chicago

May 1, 2003
It doesn't take long to talk to Dr. Luciana Burca to understand how grateful she is for many things. It also doesn't take long to realize why she believes so strongly in giving back.

By Kevin Henry, Editor; Cover photo by Brian Warling, Warling Studios, Chicago

It doesn't take long to talk to Dr. Luciana Burca to understand how grateful she is for many things. It also doesn't take long to realize why she believes so strongly in giving back.

Part of that "giving back" takes place on both the local and international levels. Dr. Burca has travelled around the world to provide dental treatment for those who have lived with pain for as long as they can remember. She has also started a concept called Superior IDEA (Institute of Dental Education and Assistance) in Chicago which has given minorities in the Windy City a chance to attend dental assisting school and have a chance at a profession they otherwise might not have had.

Superior IDEA was actually born out of an overseas dental mission trip, so perhaps it is no surprise that the two are so closely tied together. After all, one of the requirements of Superior IDEA is to give back to humanity on a mission trip overseas.

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"I have a sister who is involved in overseas mission trips and she asked me to come along with her about three years ago on a trip to Eastern.Europe," Dr. Burca said. "I had never been on a dental mission trip, so I asked her what to bring along. She told me to bring everything I could. I knew there was a need, but didn't realize how big of a need until I got there and saw these people. I don't think anyone could walk away from there without being moved.

"While we were there, a registered nurse helped me because there were no dental assistants on the trip. I began thinking how valuable it would be to have someone help me who knew what I wanted, as well as someone who could educate people about their oral health," she continued. "I thought about that, and then became more and more convinced of the shortage of good dental assistants in Chicago. Out of that, Superior IDEA was born."

Superior IDEA is a non-profit dental assisting program that aims to provide affordable, high-quality dental assistant training primarily for economically disadvantaged members of Chicago's minority communities. Superior IDEA's pilot program was launched in the spring of 2003.

"The primary focus of Superior IDEA is to provide educational and career opportunities within the dental field for people in Chicago who may not otherwise have them," Dr. Burca said.

The Superior IDEA program runs in three-month cycles and will initially include six students, with a target enrollment of 48 by 2004. Classes will be held on Saturdays, so students can maintain their weekday jobs. Upon completion of the 12-week program, students must participate in a 60-hour internship at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry. Superior IDEA offers its graduates job-placement assistance, although permanent placement is not guaranteed.

From left to right, Naomi Cooper and Lisa Fleetwood of 1-800-DENTIST present Dr. Luciana Burca and Zuzel Ferriera with the company's first-ever "1-800-DENTIST Cares" award for Dr. Burca's work in Chicago and around the world.
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Anyone can apply for Superior IDEA, however the target student population is primarily recruited from low socio-economic areas focusing initially on the Chicago-area Latino communities of Pilsen, Back of the Yards, and Humbolt Park. Tuitions for students with a demonstrated economic need will be sponsored through donations made to Superior IDEA.

Dr. Burca knows for a fact that the training of Latino dental assistants will be a huge benefit for any dentist. After all, her assistant of four years, Zuzel Ferreira, is of Cuban descent and is, as Dr. Burca describes her, "a human Palm Pilot.

"I don't know how I would get along without Zuzzi," Dr. Burca said. "She's worth millions to me."

Ferreira and Dr. Burca came together four years ago after being introduced to each other by a mutual friend. Ferreira had no previous dental experience, but Dr. Burca knew quickly that she would be an asset to the practice.

"I had had someone in the office who was very well-trained in her assisting job, and that's why I.hired her. But her priorities in the office weren't in line with mine, so I had to let her go," Dr. Burca said. "Character is important. When I met Zuzzi, I knew I was meeting someone who has character. In addition, Zuzzi can speak Spanish, and that has been a help numerous times. People can sense Zuzzi and I are alike and that we're on the same page, and that's important for our practice."

It is also important to Dr. Burca to attend continuing-education courses and trade show with Ferreira.

"As our professions progress, we should also progress as well," Dr. Burca explained. "People pay to be treated by qualified dental professionals. If I was going into surgery, I would hope the surgeon is up-to-date on the latest procedures, and I would hope that all those people assisting him or her would be as well. Likewise, Zuzzi and I need to speak the same language when it comes to our knowledge of dentistry. If someone calls and asks either of us about HIPAA or another new dental-related issue, I want us both to be able to explain it and have the same explanation."

Ferreira agrees that the working relationship has evolved into a true friendship.

"The first day I worked here, Dr. Burca taught me how to do dental X-rays. Since that day, she has taught me so much, and I am so grateful," Ferreira said. "She is fair, she's compassionate, and she works miracles on patients. If I ever left here, I wouldn't go to anyone else to have my dentistry done. She's a wonderful dentist and a wonderful human being."

Ferreira also describes Dr. Burca as someone who doesn't give up.

"When she first had the idea for Superior IDEA, there were a lot of doors that were closed and a lot of stumbling blocks she had to get over, but she has done that," Ferreira said. "Just today we have had a couple of calls from people wanting to get applications to sign up for Superior IDEA. We ask them how they heard about it, and they tell us they heard it from their friends. Word is getting out, and that's a testament to Dr. Burca never giving up on her idea."

Dr. Burca, who has also worked as a dental assistant, believes a positive relationship in the office is a valuable commodity.

"No matter what profession you are in, your employees should represent you and be on the same wavelength as you," Dr. Burca explained.

She also believes in the power of the gifts each of us have been given.

"There are so many needs in this world, and we have each been given so many gifts," Dr. Burca said. "We're not supposed to keep the gifts we have been given. I'm grateful to God for the gifts He has given me. I don't want people to remember me as a dentist. I want to be remembered as someone who was grateful for her gifts and used them to help people."

For more information or details on how to make a tax-deductible donation to Superior IDEA, call (312) 701-0100, send an e-mail to [email protected], or visit www.