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Minnesota dentist finds his mission to help the underserved

December 05, 2017

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Aguirre adn Lani Becker during a 2016 MOM event
Mission of Mercy: Dr. Alejandro M. Aguirre, left, and Lani Becker, board member of America's Dentists Care Foundation, pose for a photo during the 2016 Minnesota Mission of Mercy. Dr. Aguirre helped launched the annual event in 2012 to provide free dental care to the underserved and uninsured.
Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series featuring graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership and how these dental leaders continue to affect their communities.

Minneapolis — Prior to 2012, the Minnesota Dental Association had thought of organizing its own Mission of Mercy event but just couldn't seem to get started.
    
"Everybody was afraid," said Dr. Alejandro Aguirre, an endodontist in Minneapolis. "It was seen as a huge project and no one really knew where to begin."
    
With the motivation to help the underserved residents of Minnesota, Dr. Aguirre rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
    
"A lot of people had doubts. People told me that I was not going get the volunteers, or the money, or the patients to show up," he said. "I told them, 'Well, when eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.'"
    
Six years later, the association is scheduled to host its sixth MOM event, which is expected to have about 1,000 volunteers provide free dental care to more than 2,000 patients. The program, which took a break this year, has made more than 10,000 patient encounters and donated more than $5.1 million in dental services and treatment since 2012.

The most difficult part of the process was only the beginning as it gets a little bit easier every year, Dr. Aguirre said. To accomplish organizing a Mission of Mercy in Minnesota, Dr. Aguirre said he had to use specific leadership skills — particularly ones he learned from his time in the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.

"I had to listen, empower others, be diplomatic but firm and to focus," he said. "That all came from the Institute."

Becoming a leader

Years after receiving his dental degree in Mexico in 1987 and moving to the U.S., Dr. Aguirre said he never took on any leadership roles in organized dentistry.

Dr. Aguirre moved to the U.S. to study his specialty at the University of Minnesota and completed his residency program in 1991. While teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry, he took advantage of a foreign trained faculty program that allowed him to earn his U.S. dental degree in 1997.

It wasn't until 2006 that Dr. Aguirre decided to apply for the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, a program designed to enhance the leadership skills of dentists who belong to racial, ethnic and/or gender backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in leadership roles within the profession and their communities.

As part of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, participants are tasked with developing and executing a personal leadership project that addresses an issue or challenge in his or her community, organization or the profession. Institute participants receive help from ADA staff and work with leading educators from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Photo of MOM volunteers
Volunteers: The Minnesota Dental Association's Mission of Mercy event involves about 1,000 volunteers, including 300 dentists, treating more than 2,000 patients. Since 2012, the program has had more than 10,000 patient encounters and donated about $5.1 million in dental services and treatment.
Dr. Aguirre chose, for his project, to help the Minnesota Dental Association better understand the issues foreign-trained dentists face when seeking to practice in the United States.

He organized a meeting that allowed foreign-trained dentists to meet with MDA volunteer leaders to share their stories — from acquiring a license to finding employment.

"They gave us a little bit of their stories, their tribulations, spoke about the hoops they had to go through," he said. "It was an eye-opener for many."

His Institute project also opened Dr. Aguirre's eyes to volunteer opportunities in organized dentistry. In addition working fulltime as an endodontist, Dr. Aguirre has since served as trustee in the Minnesota Dental Association, president of the Minneapolis District Dental Society, and continues to serve as state chair of the Minnesota Mission of Mercy.

"Dr. Aguirre was instrumental in launching the Minnesota Mission of Mercy program in 2012," said Carmelo Cinqueonce, Minnesota Dental Association executive director. "It was and continues to be his leadership and dedication that makes the program possible."

'Labor of love'

It was during his time at the Institute that Dr. Aguirre met Dr. Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. Dr. Dickinson had been doing videos of MOM events in his state.

"That's when I first got very interested in doing the same thing in Minnesota," Dr. Aguirre said. "I wanted to help people."

Service has been important to Dr. Aguirre since high school. He said he was part of a student group that volunteered in an orphanage started by Mother Theresa. In addition, it was at this age when he first read a biography on Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who volunteered to die in place of another prison in in the concentration camp in Auschwitz during World War II.

"He was declared a saint in 1981 and the person he saved attended the ceremony," Dr. Aguirre said. "I read the book about Saint Kolbe every year."

Dr. Aguirre said Saint Kolbe's life story gave him a simple mission: just serve.

"If he can sacrifice his life, I can surely sacrifice a little of my time to serve," Dr. Aguirre said. "That's my motivation for the Mission of Mercy."

The first thing Dr. Aguirre said he did was simply say and commit he was going to organize the event. He then visited MOM events in Illinois and Wisconsin to observe and learn, which helped him present his plan to the Minnesota Dental Association and Delta Dental of Minnesota.

"The Mission of Mercy highlights the continued need to make oral health a priority in health care delivery," said Mr. Cinqueonce. "There are too many individuals who fall through the cracks and live with pain and infection on a daily basis."

The MDA approved Dr. Aguirre's plan and appointed him chair; Delta Dental of Minnesota then committed $150,000 per year to the program.

"Delta Dental has been very supportive of MOM, along with other organizations and private individuals," Dr. Aguirre said.

Despite his role in organizing the annual event, Dr. Aguirre said he recognizes that he couldn't have done it without the help of others.

The Mission of Mercy of Minnesota, he said, involves about 300 volunteer dentists, 300 assistants, 50 hygienists, a program coordinator and hundreds of lay volunteers. It takes about a year to organize the two-day event, which will be held Sept. 7-8, 2018.

"It's a labor of love but I cannot do it alone," said. "The volunteers do all the hard work. They are the mission."

To learn more about the Minnesota Dental Association's Mission of Mercy, visit mndental.org/events/mission-of-mercy. For more information on the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, which admits dentists each year with all expenses covered by the ADA, Henry Schein Cares and Crest + Oral-B, visit ADA.org/diversityinstitute.