LEXINGTON, Ky. ( April 7, 2016) –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, Kentucky, a tiny town in Letcher County about 30 minutes from Hazard, she didn’t always 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. However, at her father’s coaxing, she entered college as a pre-med major. A turning point for Stone, however, may have been the day she attended the UK Health Careers Opportunities Program, where she discovered that dentistry was a profession that merged both her love of art and science.
“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, now 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 (NHSC) to do loan repayment. Eventually, she asked for a transfer closer to home to be closer to family. Stone’s last year with NHSC was just across the Kentucky border in Virginia. She had been practicing dentistry for 10 years when she was hired by the UK College of Dentistry to head up the Mobile Care program, coming full circle back 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. 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.”
The UK North Fork Valley Community Health Center’s mobile dental outreach program celebrated 10 years of serving the children of Eastern Kentucky in 2015. Stone has directed the program since the program’s inception in 2005. She and several dental hygienists and assistants provide preventive dental care twice a year to 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,” she said. “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. I especially love to share with others the inspiration of doing something outside the box and looking for unique ways to make a difference.”
Stone’s office is a mobile dental unit, the Eastern Kentucky Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, a gift from Ronald McDonald House Charities Global. Annually, about 2,400 children receive services. Stone and her team have served more than 12,000 individual children in the four-county service area.
During that span of time, tooth decay rates 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.
“Children in Eastern Kentucky have the second highest rates of untreated tooth decay in the nation. 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.”
Although Stone wasn’t always sure dentistry was where she belonged, she truly feels she has found her place in the world, her ‘piece of the puzzle.’
“I once had a very spunky little girl come on the mobile unit and she was very excited to be there,” Stone says. “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.”