Busy assistant finds her niche

May 1, 2001
Dottie Stewart O'Keefe, CDA, EFDA, describes herself as "a kid who fell through the cracks in high school."

By Kevin Henry, Editor

Dottie Stewart O'Keefe, CDA, EFDA, describes herself as "a kid who fell through the cracks in high school." But falling through the cracks has allowed her to find plenty of opportunities.

After dropping some courses in high school in 1969 (she had enough credits to graduate), Stewart O'Keefe was trained on the job by her own dentist. She received permission from her principal to use the training as future job training as a dental assistant and, as they say, the rest is history.

"It was a wonderful time," Stewart O'Keefe remembered. "It was the best training that I have ever had. Dr. Harold Marcus helped me so much, and his assistant, Lucy, really helped me find my niche."

That niche has grown considerably during her more than 30 years in the dental assisting field. Living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she currently holds down two dental assisting jobs at two different practices, a teaching position at a Harcum College, and a position as the director of education for a nonprofit dental outreach agency (see box below).

In addition to those chores, Stewart O'Keefe serves as the president of the Pennsylvania Dental Assistants Association and the president of the Philadelphia Dental Assistants Society. She is a firm believer in the need for a dental assistant to belong to an association.

"Membership in an organization is very important," she said. "I believe that it is a part of the dental assistant's personal journey. I have discovered so many dental assistants who don't know all of the OSHA requirements. When they attend our meetings, they learn about these requirements and other things that help them become a better assistant. When they come back to the office and point out some of the ways to improve the office, the doctors are floored. Membership can be an asset for the entire office."

Stewart O'Keefe and her passion for helping others improve their oral health has become an asset for those living in the Philadelphia area. In particular, she has become a champion for the at-risk children in and around the City of Brotherly Love.

The majority of her work with the underinsured and uninsured children comes through Kids Smiles, a nonprofit dental center focusing on the needs of those children.

"It's really an outreach education center as well as a dental facility," she explained. "We work with grants and donations. One of the main messages we want to get out to the public is our ability to improve access for people with state insurance. If they can't pay, we can work with them thanks to the grants and donations we receive.

"Part of our outreach is going out to area schools and teaching about oral hygiene, alcohol abuse, and tobacco cessation. Right now, we target those in the fifth grade and younger, and we're hoping to move into the middle schools soon."

Stewart O'Keefe and Kids Smiles work in the urban areas of Philadelphia, using dental education and screenings to find potential oral problems in children who might not normally have access to a dentist.

"We note what we find during a visible screening and send a note home with the child detailing our findings," she said. "On that note, we emphasize that we are available if they do not have access to a dentist. We also emphasize that we can greatly reduce their fees thanks to our grants."

Stewart O'Keefe also tries to use Kids Smiles as a place where children can gain the same passion for dentistry that she learned. She hopes that it will become a place where dreams of dental careers are hatched. Part of the center's outreach is a character designed by Stewart O'Keefe 15 years ago — KASS the Kangaroo. KASS is an acronym for Kids Are Super Special.

"I brought KASS to Kids Smiles and really just needed someone to play the straight man whenever we go into a school," she said. "During our time in the school, the kids are given the opportunity to teach KASS some things that she might not know and, in return, KASS teaches them about how to take care of their teeth."

So how does Stewart O'Keefe handle her busy schedule? "It's never boring for me," she laughed. "Time management is the key. When I'm at work, I try to think of each procedure as a challenge. I keep trying to find a way to do things faster and better and I always try to think ahead of the doctor.

"I enjoy all of my jobs. I look at each one as a new and different challenge and try to fill the different needs of each area. There are so many opportunities provided to dental assistants, if you look for them. I've had a long and exciting career, and I look forward to the exciting future of dentistry."

Editor's Note: Dottie Stewart O'Keefe can be reached by calling (484) 432-7217.