Miles, Motels and Molars: Working as a public health dental hygienist in Delta Dental’s Mobile Program.

Val Kavanaugh, RDH, regional hygienist for Delta Dental of South Dakota.

My days are never a repeat of a previous day – there are no “Groundhog Days!” My job is unique, and I consider myself lucky!

My home is in Rapid City, but each week I travel to a location where I provide preventive care to children. My kids laugh because while they know that one of my dreams was to live in the Black Hills, they remind me that I only live there on the weekends!


Some weeks I work with the Mobile Program’s crew. I pack up my gear, check my destination and hit the road. Once I arrive, I set up, take my cue from the coordinator and get busy. These weeks are a combination of preventive services and restorative services, and they run like a traditional dental office, except on wheels! For these weeks, I mentally put on my traditional hygienist hat.


Other weeks, I travel to a location on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On those weeks I head out of Rapid City with my car packed, lodging reservations made and down the road I go. At these sites, I work under a collaborative license and do not have a dentist present. I shift gears and put on my collaborative hygienist hat.

One of the biggest differences I experience while working collaboratively is that there are a lot more decisions that I alone have to make for each child I see. In addition to deciding which preventive services to provide, I am the person that has to evaluate the consent form to see if a child can be seen, determine what kind of dental referral needs to be made and where, contact the family regarding the child’s needs, identify/overcome obstacles that may prevent the child from receiving treatment and work with the site partner to encourage participation in our program and the possibility of implementing toothbrushing protocols on site.

Weeks when I work on the Pine Ridge Reservation I stay at 1 of 3 motels – whichever is closest to my clinic location. The staff at each of the motels are very good to me and know me on sight! When I check in we usually take some time to have a chat and catch up on things. These motels have become a home-away-from-home for me. I jokingly refer to them as my vacation homes.


The weeks rarely run smoothly so I work constantly at perfecting the art of flying by the seat of my pants. I’m getting better each year! Murphy’s Law is my constant companion, but so is a healthy sense of humor!

Each site is different, from the facility to the site partners and volunteers, to the kids we see. But the constant in all this is the gratitude and appreciation I see and feel at each site. As I said at the start, I consider myself lucky to be able to do this!