Endodontist felt helpless turning away dental patients

Dr. Emily Ikahihifo has had to apologize to her patients for pushing out their appointments because of the vaccine. She is grateful to be working with them again.

Dr. Emily Ikahihifo is an endodontist at W.W. Hastings Hospital and focuses on the interior of teeth, performing complicated root canal procedures that are outside the scope of typical dental practitioners.

Over the course of the pandemic, she has worked on the front line with emergency patients and has had to console those who have been unable to receive desired treatment. She said her office was unable to see everyone who wanted to checkup, unless the patient was in severe pain.

“It’s hard not to be able to treat our patients who have needed it," Ikahihifo said. "Some teeth that could have been saved with a filling now needed a root canal, and some teeth that needed a root canal had to be pulled. But you can’t risk spreading the virus to other people. They did the right thing by playing it safe, but there was a price to be paid.”

She described how many providers struggled because they couldn’t help but wonder if they were taking home the virus to their families. In light of this, they wore Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and N95 masks.

“When arriving home, I would go straight to the washing machine to wash my clothes, and then to the shower,” she said.

Ikahihifo, like others in her clinic, felt awful for their patients. She describes how they tried to schedule appointments, but after spikes in COVID activity would hit, they would have to cancel them and push their appointments out.

“We would apologize profusely. We still feel bad for our patients. The word that best describes it is ‘helplessness,’” she said.

Endodontists are dentists that undergo a two- to three-year residency that allows them to focus on root canals and root end surgeries. Ikahihifo attended Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona before working at the IHS dental clinic in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation, and she performed her clinical work in Long Beach, California, at the VA hospital for two years.

Ikahihifo always wanted to work with Indigenous communities.

“I’m half Navajo,” she said. “I was able to experience serving my tribe in a different capacity, and I enjoyed my time there. They have different struggles, but it’s amazing to see the strong connections between Native American communities.”

The endodontist also currently serves as a commission corps officer for the U.S. Public Health Service. She draws upon her expertise to educate youth about the dangers of vaping and smoking. They have put on presentations for Tahlequah Middle School, Tahlequah High School, and for the Northeastern State University faculty.

In their presentations, they point out the added dangers of vaping during the pandemic because the coronavirus attacks the lungs.

“There’s a connection between vaping and lungs. If you add COVID into the mix, it is a double whammy,” she said.

She also points out that there is a strong correlation between vaping and smoking, and smoking is detrimental to overall oral health.

“The problem with vaping is that it leads to smoking cigarettes," she said. "The younger you start vaping, the more quickly that you’ll move on to cigarettes. Smoking is bad for your teeth and gums, and it causes inflammation. Once you have been doing it for long periods of time it becomes chronic, then you start losing your bones and teeth. You can also get nasopharyngeal and mouth cancer."

The Green Country Commission Officer’s Organization is made up of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and dental hygienists and are not paid for their service. They meet at the Hastings Hospital, and their mission is to educate students and the community about health-related topics. For more information about their presentations, they can be reached at alena-korbut@cherokee.org.

Dr. Ikahihifo’s comments do not reflect the opinion, position, or endorsement of the Cherokee Nation or of the USPHS.

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