Travis Tramel, Ph.D, MA, RDHAP didn’t always know what he wanted to be. What he did know, however, was that whatever he ended up doing would be rooted in service. He’s spent his life serving others, so when he found a career where he could focus on just that, he knew it was his calling.
Becoming a Registered Dental Hygienist in Alternative Practice (RDHAP) requires special training that focuses on prevention. RDHAPs provide services such as cleanings, sealants and screenings to patients in remote locations or limited mobility. Tramel saw this path as an opportunity to educate and enhance health in his community.
As the CEO and founder of GeriSmiles Dental Health Foundation, a mobile dental hygiene practice in Riverside, California, Tramel works with children of all backgrounds to preach the importance of good oral health and ensure that his community is off to the right start. Now 21 years into his career, he says the same things still make him smile: empowering people with the knowledge and tools they need to better their lives.
What made you want to be a Registered Dental Hygienist in Alternative Practice?
My story is different and crazy. Growing up, you don’t know the different levels of health care staff. You just go to the dental office and get your teeth cleaned. It wasn’t until a recruiter came from Loma Linda, California to our undergrad school in Alabama — Oakwood College, at that time. They told us that in dentistry, you could be a dentist or you could be a dental hygienist.
Everybody wanted to be a dentist because they fix root canals and they fix broken teeth. The recruiter got up and said, “I’m a hygienist and I fix the whole body. I’m the bacteria stopper. I stop things in their tracks before they do damage to something else.” That was a different way of looking at things.
I thought that preventive maintenance was neat. I like being at a point where I could keep you from getting into trouble. I realized that if I could help people by being preventive, I can help them in the long run.
How did GeriSmiles Dental Health Foundation come to be?
When you’re a hygienist, you spend a lot of time telling people, “You need to floss more. You’ve got a 4-millimeter pocket over here. Your gums are still bleeding.” You start wondering if you’re being effective.
I was getting to the point where patients were saying, “I don’t want the education on it. Just clean my teeth and let me go.” When you begin to get those answers, you ask yourself if you’re being heard and if your job is still needed. When you hear that day in and day out, you start burning out.
I talked to a friend of mine about if after 15 years if I should change careers. That’s when she said, “Why don’t we become mobile hygienists?” She had already done the research. We went up to San Francisco to do a program and my eyes were opened to the actual needs of dentistry, especially hygiene, in the public health sector.
My practice’s name, GeriSmiles, actually came from “geriatric smiles.” When you look at our aging population, no one is there to help them prevent [dental disease]. When they’re in nursing homes and assisted living, they’re usually in that stage where they’re about to lose it all. You’re trying to fix something that’s already broken. So I started looking at how we can prevent issues that can help them going longer. I was going to nursing homes and hospice homes, but you can only see about eight patients a day.
When it comes to being preventive, we realized that we wanted to do more work with kids. Sometimes parents don’t have time to take off of work to take their kids to a 10-minute cleaning. That’s when GeriSmiles went from “geriatric” to “Dr. Geri.”
In 2017, I went into the school system. Now I focus on eight school districts with our mobile dental programs where we work with K-12. Whoever wants a cleaning gets it, because I believe that if we can help the kids and help the parents understand that a five-minute cleaning can save them. We can find issues and still keep kids in school.
What do you love about your career?
I love that I teach the public about oral health care. I get to meet different people every day and it allows me to be community-minded.
As my own boss, I get to educate the public and go to city council and school board meetings. But, I also don’t look at myself like anybody’s boss. We’re equals. I just sign the paychecks. No work is underneath me, from assisting to billing to hygiene work. All my staff will tell you that I’m in the trenches with them. I help them set up, and I help them break down. We are for the public and we’re family.
What does service mean to you?
Service to me is always helping those who need it most. Even though you think you may not need it, take it. If the service is being offered, utilize it. When we give up ourselves to others, we get blessed by just blessing them. My patients are uninsured or on Medi-Cal — those who can’t pay me. To see the smiles on their faces and help them, it means the world to me.
My family volunteered every weekend growing up. My mother ran soup kitchens and would feed anywhere between 200 and 300 people every Sunday morning. If you were hurting, if you needed clothes, she’d take them off her back and give them to you. Service is in my blood.
My mother was in education and my father worked for the State of Georgia. Sometimes you look at your own situation and you know that you don’t have a silver spoon either, but later you realize that you were helping those who really needed help. Give yourself in order to bless someone else. To me, that’s what dentistry is all about. Patients come to you because they need something or are in pain. In my hands, I have the gift of hygiene and the gift of service. I can always use those to help somebody when they’re down low.
How did COVID-19 affect your work?
On March 5, 2020, I got notified that outside providers were no longer needed on school campuses. I got emails saying, “Hey, we don’t know where this is going to go, but at least for the next two months, there will be no dental services on our campus.”
It was like a dagger that just pierced my heart. I’m looking at my staff of 20 and thinking, “What do we do for paychecks? What do we do for bills?” Your head is spinning, as a CEO.
We used our savings and got a loan, because I wanted to make sure my staff’s households were not interrupted. I helped them through the next two months, until unemployment kicked in. We were blessed to not have to suffer, but they’re my family. They’ve been with me since Day One. They never leave me hanging and it wasn’t time for me to leave them hanging — when we needed each other the most.
Luckily, some of the private schools were still meeting, so we were able to serve them. Preschoolers need to be screened within 45 days of starting school, as well. Since they’re virtual, it gave me the idea to use Zoom to do online screenings until the schools reopen and we can return.
Tell us about a time that made you feel especially proud of your work.
I have a special dental cellphone for patients to call and at 9 pm one night, my phone goes off. I don’t normally have it on that late, but I answered it and they said, “Hi, you were at this school today.” I got nervous that something bad had happened, but she said, “I’m calling to thank you. I don’t know what you said to my son today, but when I gave my son his after-school snack, he said, ‘Mom, I no longer want to eat those. The dentist told me they are bad for my teeth and could cause a cavity.’ I gave him a granola bar instead and when we got home, he ran to the bathroom and pulls out the toothbrush packet he got and brushes his teeth. Then he took the toothbrush and ran to his room. When I asked him why, he said, ‘This is my special toothbrush, and I don’t have to share it!’”
For her son to make those changes immediately made her say, “I am impressed with your program. Please keep doing what you’re doing.”
Now when I’m at the schools, I ask if the kids have brothers or sisters and I give them kits for their family members, as well. You never know who’s sharing or who’s suffering. We are 100% self-funded. If they have insurance, we bill. If they don’t, we still treat them. We treat all kids equal.
What do you do in your free time?
I love to travel and see the world. I want my kids, who are 17 and 13, to see things that I didn’t see growing up… We like international travel and seeing different cultures and how they live. We don’t do touristy things. We like to go into the deep country and really learn about the culture.
We love hiking, cycling, scuba diving, touring and educating. It’s all fun to me!
What’s the best thing you watched in recent memory?
The best thing I watched? Well, you can look at COVID two ways: a downfall or a blessing, because it made you cherish life more. Especially your loved ones. It caused us to sit down and talk to our family members, love them and respect the time we have together. It made us cherish the moment we have now. It’s an opportunity to grow and to change. I think that’s the best thing I watched.
Congratulations to Travis Tramel on being our Dental Health Partner of the Month! You can learn more about his mobile practice on the GeriSmiles Dental Health Foundation website.