Female dental student talks to elderly patient.
Taylor Campbell, left, third-year dental student, visits with Imogene Clark, who has been a School of Dentistry patient since 1978.
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After 42 years, Imogene Clark still loyal dental school patient

Published on Thursday, January 30, 2020

By: Kate Royals

Imogene Clark, 89, is all smiles as she sits in her chair at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry’s student clinic. She is set to receive a crown on one of her teeth – an experience that for most is not smile-inducing.

But sitting there under the eyes and hands of a young dental student – with an experienced faculty member watching over – is a familiar place for Clark.

Clark, a Jackson resident, has been coming to this student clinic for all of her dental treatment since 1978. In fact, her first student provider was Jay Willis, a member of the dental school’s inaugural class who went on to graduate in 1979 and practice dentistry for more than 35 years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Since the first class began in 1975, dental students have been seeing private patients in some capacity under the supervision of licensed faculty dentists. Currently, during students’ third and fourth years, they see private patients under the same supervision at about half the cost of the same services in private practice.

Dental patient laughs while talking to someone off camera.
Clark shares a laugh during a recent visit to the school.

The relationship is a win-win, with students gaining necessary experience and patients receiving necessary treatment at a lesser price.

For Clark, a long-time employee of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, it was less about the financial advantage and more about Willis and the other student providers. 

“I just absolutely adored him,” Clark said of Willis. “Every time I saw him, I insisted he take $10, and I remember he’d say ‘I’m going to eat at Captain D’s for lunch today.’”

She and Willis stayed in touch occasionally after he graduated, updating each other on their own lives and the lives of their children.

Willis, who is retired from practicing dentistry and now runs his own business, still remembers Clark fondly.

Portrait of Dr. Jay Willis

“She was just so loving and giving, and she really appreciated the dental care I was providing for her,” he said. “As a result of that we became buddies.”

He still remembers when she cut out his engagement announcement in the Clarion Ledger and brought it to one of her dental appointments.

“She always inquired about me and my plans … she was always going above and beyond, and things like that is what made our relationship special,” he recalled. “It’s what makes her still in my memory after 40 years of being out of school or having even seen her.”

Even after Willis graduated and moved on, Clark kept coming back to the School of Dentistry for her dental work. Every year she came for a cleaning aside from a few appointments to deal with small issues such as a bridge and wisdom teeth that needed pulling. 

“I just love coming here,” Clark said. “I can talk to them and tell them what I think I need, and they allow me to say whatever I feel like I need to say.”

Dentist points at computer while dental student and patient look at the screen.
Dr. John Smith shows Campbell and Clark a radiograph depicting a crown in need of cementing.

Taylor Campbell, a third-year dental student, has been Clark’s student provider for around a year. She is equally grateful to Clark for helping her through what can be a stressful learning experience.

“It’s been an honor. She’s so sweet and so very, very patient with me,” Campbell said. “She’s helped me with some experiences that could be very stressful … She’s like a teacher to me.”

The relationship between Clark and dozens of dental students over the years illustrates the importance of the dental school’s patients, Dr. John Smith, associate dean for student affairs and admissions, said.

Smith said Clark has been a big part of many dentists’ education.

“She’s trained a lot of dentists,” he said. “If it weren’t for the patients, we couldn’t do what we do. They’re as much a part of the education process as the faculty.”

And the more years that have passed, the more grateful she’s become for one particular outcome of her dental care: at 89 years old, she still has all of her teeth.

“I’m so thankful they’ve helped me through the years keep my teeth,” Clark said with a beaming smile.