Dr. Nikki Stone and mobile dental team in Hazard have helped cut tooth decay in the region 20 percent in a decade of operation

By Ann Blackford
University of Kentucky

When Dr. Daria “Nikki” Stone, associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, became the director of the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile program in Hazard, she realized she was finally in the right place at the right time, where her piece of the puzzle fit in the big picture.

Growing up in Blackey, in Letcher County about 30 minutes from Hazard, she didn’t know she wanted to be a dentist. She was always a good student and loved science classes in school but her passion had always been art. At her father’s coaxing, she entered college as a pre-med major, and discovered through the UK Health Careers Opportunities Program that dentistry was a profession that merged her love of art and science.

Dr. Daria “Nikki” Stone (University of Kentucky photos)

“Now, I have a passion and love for what I do, preventing tooth decay in children in elementary schools, preschools and Head Start centers in Eastern Kentucky and advocating for underserved children,” Stone said.

Stone married her high school sweetheart, Mark, and they have two children; Ana and Ian, 16 and 13. Her early career included part-time teaching and covering clinics in Prestonsburg and Hazard as a stay-at-home mom and working in New Mexico for the National Health Service Corps to retire a school loan. She got a transfer to be closer to family, and her last year with NHSC was just across the Kentucky border in Virginia.

She had been practicing dentistry for 10 years when UK hired her to head the Mobile Care program, coming full circle to the place she holds most dear.

“I love that I’ve been able to come home to Appalachia, there is no more beautiful place or more wonderful culture,” she said. “I love the way my people talk and hug and laugh, and I love that we are a deeply spiritual people who are deeply connected to one another. My children are 10th generation Appalachians and I wouldn’t want to raise them anywhere else.”

UK’s North Fork Valley Community Health Center‘s mobile dental outreach program celebrated 10 years of serving children in 2015. Stone has directed the program since its inception. She and several dental hygienists and assistants provide preventive dental care twice a year to 2,400 Head Start children in Perry, Knott, Letcher and Leslie counties and once a year to all public elementary schools in Perry and Knott counties. Children receive dental exams, cleanings, fluoride treatments, sealants and both classroom-based and individualized educational sessions. Dental education is also available to parents and teachers at various community events.

“Teaching is actually one of my favorite parts of my job,” Stone said. “I also love the practical, day-to-day side of being with children, and I also love the philosophical aspect of why we’re doing what we’re doing. . . . Children are truly a blessing to work with; they are so very honest and keep us laughing all day. I love that we are preventing tooth decay before it starts and lowering the tooth decay rates in Eastern Kentucky, which has some of the highest rates of tooth decay in the nation.”

Stone and patient Wyatt “Bebo” Goins at
Roy G. Eversole Preschool in Hazard

Tooth-decay rates in the center’s service area have decreased nearly 20 percentage points, urgent dental needs have been cut in half, and treatment-completion rates for Head Start children with urgent dental needs have increased dramatically, from 8 percent to more than 60 percent.

“When the UK dental outreach team started seeing children in local schools and Head Start centers in 2006, over half the children in Perry County had untreated cavities and 20 percent had painful abscessed teeth,” Stone recalled.

Stone said she has found her place in the world. “I once had a very spunky little girl come on the mobile unit and she was very excited to be there,” she recalled. “She couldn’t stop talking and she spoke really fast, going from one topic to another without transition. She jumped up in the dental chair and asked me this question, ‘Did you wish upon a star to be a dentist?’ It really caught me off guard and I had to stop and think about it for a couple of seconds. I realized I probably had not ever wished upon a star to be a dentist, but for some reason God chose to bless me with the opportunity to be a dentist to this beautiful little girl anyway, and to provide preventive dental care services to over 10,000 children just like her who have come on the mobile unit in the past 10 years. And maybe some of them will wish upon a star to become dentists someday.”

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