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Inspired by Rural Upbringing, Student Aims to Lower Hurdles as Small-Town Dentist

Molly Ramsey (Photo by Stephen Ray)

Growing up in rural northeast Tennessee, fourth-year dental student Molly Ramsey was used to the hourlong car ride to see her dentist. She says her home of Hancock County has no private practice dentist, and although a dentist occasionally visits the local health department, most residents are forced to trek for regular care. 

“You have to go at least 40 minutes to an hour to a neighboring town to go to the dentist, and if you have to go to a specialist, then it could be as much as an hour and a half to two hours,” she says. “Then, there’s the problem of being able to take off work, and people do not have a lot of money where I grew up, so you see a lot of dental problems as a result.” 

Wanting to eliminate the barriers those in her rural community face when accessing care, and wanting to follow in the footsteps of her siblings who have medical careers, Ramsey began considering going into a health care field. Her experience having braces helped narrow her focus to dentistry. 

“I had a really great orthodontist, and I was able to see how much more confidence you can get from having a smile that you like and just see how you can change someone’s perspective on themselves,” she says. 

Ramsey further learned of the difference she could one day make when she started shadowing a dentist. “There was one patient who stuck out to me,” she says. “She had a lot of anxiety about coming to the dentist, and she was telling me that this was the only dentist that she feels comfortable coming to. She had a lot of trust in him, and I thought that was really special, how you can establish that relationship with your patients.” 

After completing her undergraduate degree at Lincoln Memorial University, less than an hour from her hometown of Sneedville, Ramsey looked into the UT Health Science Center College of Dentistry, hoping to stay in Tennessee for affordability. She was further drawn by the warmth she felt from the faculty when she visited the campus for her interview. “The faculty just wanted to get to know you. It wasn’t anything stressful. It was just a very welcoming environment, so that was the big seller,” she says. 

As she winds down her time in the College of Dentistry, Ramsey says the familial atmosphere has continued to grow among the faculty and her fellow students. “Anytime you have any sort of misunderstanding about lecture material, or if you just want to talk about life outside of school, or get advice on practicing one day, the faculty are always happy to help,” she says. “As for us students, we have a lot of camaraderie within the class and even with the other classes. As a fourth-year, it’s really fun to talk to the younger students and bond over the experience because we’ve all been there. We all have the same goal of becoming a dental professional someday, and so there are all these commonalities between us.” 

Molly Ramsey has taken advantage of many volunteer opportunities as a student in both her undergrad and dental school years. Ramsey is shown here, in the center in the red cap, while volunteering at a Remote Area Medical clinic.

In her time as a student, Ramsey has learned the importance of serving the community. Since her undergraduate years, she has volunteered at Remote Area Medical clinics, helping to provide free medical, dental, and vision services to underserved and uninsured individuals. She has also seen the impact of the affordable dental care the College of Dentistry offers, and she hopes the college’s new clinic partnership in Kingsport – the Kingsport Dental Clinic of the Appalachian Highlands – will make a difference for people in the region where she grew up. Once it opens in mid-2024, the clinic will see patients who may not be able to afford dental care somewhere else. 

Ramsey says she will hold onto her community-centered mindset after she graduates in May and moves back close to home. While many other dentists are drawn to the benefits bigger cities offer, Ramsey is eager to get to work in a rural area, hoping to eventually own a practice and be a much-needed pillar in a small-town community. 

“A dentist who works and in a smaller area or a rural area is very well known in the community, and that’s great because you can become very integrated into that community,” she says. “You’re treating generations of the same family—the parents, the grandparents, the kids—and I think that’s something really special.” 

This story was initially published in the Winter 2024 College of Dentistry Magazine.