Navigating COVID-19: A Fourth Year Dental Student’s Perspective

By Lexi Marino January 25, 2021

In this episode, we interviewed Laura Sundmark, fourth year dental student at UNC Adams School of Dentistry. In this episode, she explained how she’s navigating dental school, with graduation on the horizon, during a pandemic.

Watch this video to learn the following:

  • How dental students are keeping up with their education when not working with patients
  • Importance of dental isolation tools to keep the public safe from viral infection
  • What it feels like to be graduating dental school during a pandemic
  • Importance of mentorships as a young dental clinician

Rolando Mia, from Zyris, is the host of our series, Dental Voice. In this show, we focus on the latest news, topics, and conversations happening in dentistry and assess differing views across the nation. In Season 2, we’re focused on, “What’s Working and What’s Not”, where we’re debunked myths by assessing trial and error since the start of Covid-19.


Rolando Mia: Good day, everybody. Welcome to Dental Voice season two with Zyris. My name is Rolando Mia. Our guest today is a fourth-year dental student at UNC Adams School of Dental Medicine. Her name is Laura Sundmark, and really excited to spend some time with her. I’ve gotten to know her a little bit and what an incredible story, Laura, welcome to the show. How are you?

Laura Sundmark: Thank you, I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me, I’m doing well, Thank you.

Rolando Mia: So what I’d like to do as we get into this is if you could share a little bit of your story of how you got into dental school and kind of what happened to get where you are today.

Inspiration to Go to Dental School

Laura Sundmark: Sure so I grew up in Minnesota and I had a mentor that I started babysitting for and nannying his kids really, really young. And he was a dentist, and his wife was a pediatrician and they decided to move their practice to North Carolina. I was devastated.

So I ended up packing my bags when I graduated from high school and I moved across from Minnesota to North Carolina. I enrolled in a community college because I wanted to get my in-state tuition and try to do it smart and not spend a ton of money as out of state. I transferred into UNC Ashville after that, and I got an undergrad in psychology. I was really interested in, you know, having that patient connection. I was thinking this through all the way, because really, I wanted to be a dentist since I was eight.

So I moved out there, I started working in this practice, getting my pre-recs for dental school. So I graduated high school in 2012. I graduated college in 2015 and started applying to dental school. And I had this all counted out on my fingers. I was going to take this many years, you know, four years of dental school. Well, surprise to me. You don’t always get into dental school, the first try or the second try. It actually took me three years of applying and I took the DAT four times before I got into dental school. So, I actually had 23 rejections before I got into my dream school of UNC. So that was a little bit about like my journey getting in there.

Rolando Mia: First of all, I admire the perseverance. The fact is you had always really wanted to be a dentist?

Why Laura Chose Dentistry Over Medicine

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, like since I was eight years old, I just, I was really passionate, and people called me smiley. My mom was a nurse and I hated when she left to go to work, she was working nights, and I wanted her to just be with us.

I didn’t want to be in the hospital scene, but I love taking care of people. And, but so I was sitting in the dental office and my dad was telling me about, you know, “I don’t have to work holidays”. I can still come home and hang out with my family. And from that day on, I was like, “I will be a dentist”.

Rolando Mia: Oh, well, thank you for sharing the story. It’s amazing. You know, what is it people don’t care how much, you know, until they know how much you care. And the fact that you’ve got such a passion and such commitment is incredible and really, really appreciate that. And now you’re a fourth-year dental student, I believe.

Laura Sundmark: I’m a fourth year.

Rolando Mia: How’s that going for you?

Laura Sundmark: I ended third year on Zoom, and I started fourth year on Zoom. So, you know, to be completely honest, it’s a little tough. I want to be with my patients and seeing my patients. I’m sure as a lot of people can relate. Well there’s been a lot of points of uncertainty. And it’s so fluid that when people call and my patients call and talk to me, I say, “I’m so glad you called. I’ve been thinking of you.” Or I’ve actually reached out to some of my patients and said, “I haven’t forgot about you. I don’t have an answer for you, but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know.” So, you know, we want to be back with our patients and be working on them. And we’ve virtually been doing like CE courses on Zoom and learning and doing lectures.

In the fourth year, UNC at least has it scheduled. So we’re pretty much full time just seeing patients and going on rotations out into the real world and we’re missing that. So it’s a little difficult to be honest.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Dental Schools

Rolando Mia: Well, thank you, COVID really put a pause on a whole bunch of things. And when you look at the soaring cases and the uncertainty of COVID, how has that affected your perspective and kind of the way you’re navigating through dental school?

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, that’s a really good question. You know, I think that COVID has had some pros and some cons definitely. Like I said, we’re not having patient care. So that’s really hard. There’s a lot of uncertainty and you know, everything we do in the dental school is going to be off of the epidemiology, the research and microbiologists and going with, you know, all that stuff, which is great, but that all takes time too. You know, it all takes time to come out, it all takes time to get a whole army. You know, we’re a whole huge family and that we need to get organized and put together in order to make things run and keep everybody safe.

So, and as everybody knows, everybody’s at different levels with COVID, some people are scared, some people are over it. Some people, you know, it’s, there’s a lot of different views, but the reality of it is we have to take it how it is. And there’s been a lot of positives too. We changed over from scheduling our patients to having people schedule for us schedulers. There’s been a lot of transitions. So, the good thing is there’s been a lot of time for administration and people to help come together and figure out the kinks without just throwing us in there.

We’re also implementing like a new curriculum at UNC which has been a huge change. They’ve been able to do some early implementation for them. So, there is a lot of positives. There’s going to be a lot of good things. Change is hard for anybody, so, you know, like I said, there’s pros and cons to both.

Rolando Mia: Well, awesome. There’s the crazy stuff, but then also there’s good stuff.

Do you feel apprehensive? You mentioned some people are over it, some people are really concerned. How do you feel about COVID-19?

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, that is a good question. I think my feelings have been kind of fluid as much as it’s changed as well. So, you know, yeah, I’ve kind of shifted around a little bit and you know, I have to remind myself to keep looking at the research and, you know, sort out the good news and you know, different things.

I’m confident in our school and I’m confident that we will be in a safe environment and I’m blessed because I’m not immunocompromised. I feel confident. But it might be different tomorrow.

Rolando Mia: It’s honest and I love that. Yeah, it does kind of ebbs and flows. When you look at what we do at Dental Voice, the thing here is to try to separate reality from fiction. What’s real and then what have you discovered during the course of all of this? Have you ever had a moment where you were like, “Wait a minute I thought that was real and that’s not, or actually this is a lot more meaningful”?

Dental Schools Are Providing New Ways to Learn Dentistry

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, it’s interesting. So as we know, you know, the media says things and you had to sort through it and stuff like that. What I found interesting is that through UNC we’ve been doing like a COVID re-entry kind of thing. So not only have we been talking amongst our group practice leaders or our little offices now that what we have, but Harvard had made this program where you go through, you read, and everything has links to science, that’s supported with everything.

So it’s kind of like a workshop that we all went through. We wrote papers on it and I really enjoyed finding peer sources and facts. It really helped me put things together and understand why there were delays, understand the government, and understand different bureaucracies. There was an interesting article that talked about, they had to get something approved by snail mail. And I was like, “They were what? Snail mail? Like this is 2020, and we are doing snail mail for approval in the middle of a pandemic.” So, it’s just trying to understand and then, you know, and like I said, everybody’s at different points.

I have brothers here with kids and you know, they’re a little like, “Oh, well you came from here and you got to get tested now.” I understand, but I have no symptoms and I’m healthy. There are just different perspectives. So it’s been interesting to see, I love my brother, but he’s not super educated into the healthcare field. And so he’s like, “Laura, you got to do this, and you got to do this”, and I’m like, “Yeah, Kyle, come on. Let’s read the facts”, you know?

So, again going back to those facts, it’s been really helpful. So that has helped, I really have enjoyed learning that stuff.

Rolando Mia: Well, thank you for that. This whole issue it’s funny prior to this, aerosols was something that happened in dentistry, but people weren’t too concerned about it.

All of a sudden, aerosols are very important. Mostly because they potentially harbor, the ability to transmit this disease to everybody, what’s your view on that?

Aerosols and What the Dental Schools are Teaching

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, you know, I think we learned quite a bit about aerosols. When we first started, we’d pick up the Cavitron and we would have to wear hairnets and have the HVE and everything. It looked like what a COVID world looks like now in a normal dental practice. This is what we have had to do in the dental school. Everything is a little bit extra when you’re in school, which is good, but they always talked about, you know, “over seven feet”, and all of these. So, I think I learned a lot more during COVID about aerosols, which was good. I think it’s great. We all have the Isovac® at our school and we use them all the time actually. So, I love that, and it does make me feel a lot safer knowing that’s going to be our number one recommended use other than doing an endo procedure.

We’ll have that going, especially because of the lack of assistance that we have. You know, I can’t imagine putting a rubber dam in and having like the air water with no assistant. If aerosols haven’t already bounced seven feet, how far are they going to go on a trampoline? Having Isovac® in there is going to make a huge difference. It makes me feel comfortable that we’ve already been using them and that we are going to be encouraged and enforced to use them throughout the procedures. And we get to, which is amazing. We’re lucky, I shouldn’t say, have to, we get to.

Rolando Mia: Well, thank you for that. You mentioned earlier you’re in your fourth year at UNC. You’re not able to do the hands-on work as much. How are you navigating through that right now?

Finding Alternative Ways to Learn Besides On-Hands Work

Laura Sundmark: I wish, so that was a difficult thing. And we’re all a little scared. So before I knew this, so I actually left, we left at the end of Spring semester before finals. I also packed up a suitcase full of dental equipment and when I say full, I couldn’t decide what I needed. I didn’t know how or why I went on eBay and I bought a little straight hand piece. Cause I was like, “I need to practice.” I’m such a hands-on learner that Zoom lectures only do so much for me. I appreciate them so much because they have kept us learning, but I’m more hands on.

So I kid you not, when I say that I was up till 2AM, the night before my flight, weighing my suitcase with myself on the scale, because it was so big and full of dental equipment. I had my articulators, our red roll-ups dental instruments, I brought home literally dental cement. I was like, “I’ll take impressions on my friends.” I just need to get my hands working. So I actually spent a lot of time working on bite splints on some casts that I already had and working on occlusal guards, which is fun to keep my hands going.

Then after that, school was actually amazing to send out us high-speed hand pieces. So, we can use electric hand pieces and do some crown preps. But then again, you know, we don’t have Dexter., I took a video one day and there was like smoke blowing everywhere, you know, there’s no water or anything and there’s plastic teeth.

If you guys can remember the smell of plastic teeth burning, like multiply by 10 and that’s what it was like. So, you know, and like they’d overheat and then I’d be like, all right, well, I’ll try prepping it 50,000 RPMs, like how can you do it? You know? So it was really, you know, great execution, great effort by our school, but it wasn’t totally ideal. However, I still had my hands moving and I was thinking about it.

Keeping a Positive Perspective on Dental Education

Rolando Mia: I love hearing about the experimentation. There are other dental students out there, fourth years who are in the same boat. How do you keep a positive perspective on this? How do you maintain the energy around it?

Laura Sundmark: Something, my grandpa always told me was, “You can’t sweat the small stuff.” That’s something that I try to think of. This isn’t a small matter by any means, but you, can’t also fear things that you can’t control. We have no control over what’s going to happen.

Keeping positivity, positivity is contagious, negativity like really brings me down and I’ve always felt that way. So, I’m always playing devil’s advocate. I’m always trying to look at the other side of things. I would encourage people to realize that anxiety is a hard thing, and everybody sits with it different. Try to not be so bogged down in the things you can’t control. Have trust that things will work out. We’ll do the best we can.

We’re going to have to kick things into high drive and there might be some late nights again in fourth year, like there wasn’t first and second. There are things we will need to relearn in order to get ourselves prepared. This is what we have to do to be the best clinicians we can.
When I look at other people and different things, it’s just like, “Laura, are you doing, everything you can to be the best dentist you can be someday? Are you staying after hours and working hard? Are you doing everything to be the best dentist?” I think that’s really what it comes down to is I’m just trying to do the best I can to be a dentist.

Importance of Mentorships

Rolando Mia: Awesome, thank you for that. Have you had mentors or who do you look to you? You mentioned you had someone who had brought you there, but with regard to Chapel Hill, any people that you’ve been looking to or?

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, you know, mentorship is a beautiful thing, and I would not be where I am without Doctor Mark Clive who I followed from Minnesota down there. He has a practice in Black Mountain, North Carolina right now, and also Sherry Kay. She does like dental coaching and different things. She was a hygienist and now she speaks all over. They’re both faculty in the Pankey Institute. There’s also been people like Doctor Hyman at our school who introduced us to each other, which is great.

Doctor Hyman is awesome.

You know but like there’s some people at school that have taken me under their wing. Doctor Keith Phillips really has done this. He came into the school recently and put me under his arm and is always like, “I’m here for you.” Some people that are just phenomenal in our school and just really want the best for us.

So I’m so grateful for all my mentors. There’s so much you can get out of a mentorship both ways. So I would really encourage if you feel like, if anybody feels like they don’t have a mentee, then open yourself up and if you don’t have a mentor, I would really encourage you to get out there and find a mentor.

A lot of motivational speakers say you don’t have to necessarily know your mentor in person. And I think that’s like pretty cool, my friend Jermaine, kind of talked about that the other day saying, “you don’t have to know your mentor.” You can like look up to people and learn lessons and strive to be amazing, like these people in the world that have already laid the footsteps down. So, I think that’s important too.

Finding Ways to Decrease Stress

Rolando Mia: That is cool. I love the context around you don’t have to know your mentor because people who are just wonderful can still inspire you and that’s a great message. I love your energy. Do you ever get bummed out or what bums you out? Or is there anything that bums you out?

Laura Sundmark: That’s a good question. I’ve learned a lot about balance in dental school. I used to be a big people pleaser all the time and I’m recovering from it. I had a really hard time saying no to people and I really would give the shirt off my back for a lot of people. Sometimes you have to be careful with that. And I think what bums me out or sometimes gets me low are situations when you try your best to be your best and it’s taken for granted.

So yeah, I guess that bums me out. Also, though, I think if I don’t keep myself healthy and balanced with working out and eating, I get too stressed and too overloaded. I try saying yes to too many things. I fill my plate higher than I can. So, that brings me down for sure.

I’ve learned that, like I said, I’m growing with it, I’ve gotten better with it.

Rolando Mia: So, you’re going to be going through and you’re graduating in May I believe, right? How does that feel?

How Dental Schools Help Build Confidence in Students

Laura Sundmark: Yeah, that’s a good question, Rolando. You know, I think, to be honest, it’s scary. like I feel really confident in my hand skills. I feel that I can go out and I can technically do a lot in dentistry.

However, especially with this long gap in training, I don’t feel extremely confident in like the experience of all of these things that I’ve learned like implant restorations. I haven’t done a lot of dentures, partials. I’ve done numerous crowns and fixed and stuff like that, but, you know, getting into the workflow. I want to be well-rounded enough to be attractive and come out of dental school as someone people want to work with. Then, one day, own my own practice.

So to me, like I wanted to get as much endo as I could, I wanted to get as much pros as I could. We’re forever learners. I’m going to be learning a lot, but it’s scary to know that we’ve had, you know, four plus months that has been taken from that experience.

There’s a lot of people and UNC that go to specialize and there’s a lot of people that will be in GPRs. I’m ready to get out in the real world, I’m ready to work, so yes, it’s scary. My hopes are that people will understand, especially with this time of COVID, that there will need to be a little bit more grace. It might need to be an environment where practice owners may need to be a little bit more of a teacher than they would maybe like.

Rolando Mia: I feel very encouraged that you are going to be great based on everything. If you were to sum up, what is the message that you’d like to get out with regard to the future of dentistry?

Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Laura Sundmark: Well, that’s a great question, you know what? Don’t fear, don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t fear what you can control. Ask good questions, diminish those fears with good questions, keep asking the questions that you need. If you need to more information to feel better about your situation, keep asking those questions. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable and it’s hard, but ask them if you’re a dental student, ask your administration, how they’re going to keep you safe.

I think it’s really important that we become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s something Sherry Kay has always told me too. So, and I would really just encourage people, ask questions, don’t sweat the small stuff and know that it will work out.

Rolando Mia: I love that, be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t sweat the small stuff. At times we fear that maybe we can’t ask the questions and the message you’re giving out is that it’s always okay to ask the questions. Is that right?

Laura Sundmark: There’s never a dumb question, I ask questions all the time. I’m sure my classmates watching this, if anybody is, they’ll be like, “Yep. She asks a lot of questions.” I’m paying for my education and I really want to ask questions that I need to ask.

Rolando Mia: Well, thank you, thank you so much for that. Thank you for taking the time. When you graduate and you’ve settled at a practice, would you be willing to come back and join us and share your update experiences?

Laura Sundmark: Yes of course.