Ambika Srivastava's final semester of dental school looked much different than she had imagined.
Ambika Srivastava's final semester of dental school looked much different than she had imagined.
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#UMMCGrad2020: SOD grad, leader, advocate steps up during crisis

Published on Friday, May 22, 2020

By: Kate Royals

If Ambika Srivastava looks familiar, it’s likely because her face has made the rounds in state and national news.

A photo snapped of her donning full personal protective equipment during the first week of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s operations at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds testing site went viral, and the fourth-year dental student’s readiness to step up during a global pandemic became well-known.

But for those around the dental school who are familiar with her outside of a photo, her willingness to lead came as no surprise.

Portrait of Dr. David Felton

“She has distinguished herself in the realm of public health dentistry,” said Dr. David Felton, dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “She has always demonstrated great concern for population health and goes above and beyond to help out in many areas. She’s been a valuable resource for the School of Dentistry as we have transitioned to the ‘new normal’ over the past six weeks.”

Srivastava worked for nearly six weeks at the Fairgrounds site filling whatever role was needed, mostly as part of a three-person team collecting the samples from patients to be sent for testing by the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Her days at the Fairgrounds started with an hourlong safety briefing, followed by eight hours of testing and a debriefing around 5:30 p.m. She and others donned gowns, gloves, safety goggles, masks and face shields under a hot sun in temperatures reaching the high 80s.

She rotated between filling one of the roles of the sampling team: the runner who brings the test kit from the tent, a scribe who verifies the patient’s information and the person doing the actual swabbing.

When asked if she was scared to be on the front lines, Srivastava first said no, then reconsidered her response.

“I’m going to answer that with: I signed up for this. I’m a health care professional. If I don’t go out there and do it, who else will?” she said.

Ambika Srivastava waxes a pair of dentures in the bench lab.
Srivastava, a 2020 School of Dentistry graduate, waxes a pair of dentures in the bench lab.

The experience was eye-opening for her.

“People were grateful … people would wave at me from their cars and mouth ‘thank you.’ I’d never felt that way being in health care,” she said. “You thank the military for their service, but I’ve never had a stranger walk up to me and thank me for my service.”

During what were supposed to be the last months of her final year of dental school, she also acted as a liaison for student concerns regarding patient care, disruptions in the educational process and graduation concerns. She served as the only dental student on a joint American Dental Education Association and Commission on Dental Accreditation task force looking at alternate methods for assessing student competency during the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Tracy Dellinger, chair of the Department of Care Planning and Restorative Sciences at UMMC, worked with her in her role as student representative for faculty interviewing. In the School of Dentistry, all full-time faculty candidates must have an interview that includes a student or trainee member. 

Portrait of Dr. Tracy Dellinger

“I find her input to be thoughtful, and she is always advocating for her fellow dental students,” said Dellinger.

Srivastava, who has a master’s degree in public health, was a natural fit for a student leader not only during COVID-19 but during dental school. Last summer she completed an externship with the Indian Rural Health Services working in remote villages in rural Alaska. The experience solidified her passions for public health dentistry and for the state of Alaska, which she has been fascinated with since she was a teenager.

“I’m most passionate about things like access to care and Medicaid. It’s interesting to see what different states are doing and the effect it has on oral and overall health,” she said. “For instance, Mississippi only allows (Medicaid coverage of) exams, extractions and X-rays, while Utah allows crowns to be covered.”

She was confronted most with the lack of access to care while in Alaska, where she experienced patients being flown in from remote areas of the state to receive care. In other instances, the dentist would fly to the patient – all of which was covered by Medicaid.

“When they’re sitting in your chair, you’re like, ‘This is my chance,’” she said. “It’s making sure you optimize the time you have with the patient. If that means doing these two necessary fillings and preventative care for the rest of the teeth, that’s what you do, because you can’t promise that patient will be back.”

The impact on Srivastava was so profound she made it a goal to return to Alaska – and, true to her goal-achieving manner, made it happen. She accepted a job in a private practice in Kodiak, a city on the island of Kodiak Island in Alaska.

She hopes to one day incorporate public health dentistry into her practice.

Until then, however, she plans to finish up her requirements at the dental school, graduate with honors in research, and return to the fairgrounds to help with testing as soon as she can.