Oral History: Rosemary Toedtemeier

This post comes from Zoë Maughan, Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

Image of Rosemary Toedtemeier from the oral history interview recordingA new oral history interview is now available in the OHSU Digital Collections. This one comes from Rosemary Toedtemeier, R.D.H., a dental hygienist at OHSU’s Russell Street Clinic. In this interview, conducted by Toni Eigner-Barry, D.M.D., Toedtemeier discusses her experiences caring for HIV+ patients and training dental students at the Russell Street Clinic in North Portland. Through personal experience and storytelling, Toedtemeier highlights the importance of compassion and the power of physical touch when caring for patients.

The Russell Street Clinic’s staff have long provided quality care to HIV+ patients and low-income community members. In fact, the clinic was once one of only a few places in the entire state of Oregon that offered dental services to patients with HIV. Additionally, Russell Street is Oregon’s only Title I provider under the Ryan White Care Act, which provides emergency relief grants to eligible metropolitan areas for community-based HIV-related services.

Throughout the interview, Toedtemeier stresses the importance of teaching dental students compassion. As part of their rotations, dental and dental hygiene students work with patients at the Russell Street Clinic. Toedtemeier remembers how Dr. David Rosenstein aimed to not only teach students facts, but to strip stigma and replace it with compassion. Rosenstein would give students a lecture while on rotation at the clinic, stressing compassion and using cases of the victims of Alberto Gonzales as examples. Toedtemeier reflects on the effects of this method on her work:

So when I first started teaching, I thought my job was to teach them how to do dental hygiene. And then after working at the clinic for a while I realized no, that’s really not what I’m supposed to be doing here. After listening to David talk about his relationship with the patients, and the relationship I began to develop with the patients, patients don’t really care what dental hygiene services they’re getting. They’re just happy to have somebody touch them and be willing to see them. They were more interested in is this provider going to stigmatize me? Is this provider going to discriminate against me? So I had to make the students very attuned to those sensors of the patients. Because if they had some quality about them that could be perceived that way, patients would shut them down and walk out on them. And then of course they would feel terrible and didn’t know why this was happening. So it was more about education about compassion and learning, self-learning, self-reflection on what looks like stigmatizing behavior? What am I doing that this patient could perceive that way, and how could I approach it differently? So I gave them some tools in order to do that. So we had less and less of that as it went on.

Toedtemeier speaks to the power of physical touch in treating HIV+ patients throughout the interview. A simple hand on the shoulder could calm a belligerent patient and create a sense of welcome. Toedtemeier’s experiences working with these patients in a dental setting show us how compassion and physical touch can break down barriers to care and understanding.

Toedtemeier discusses her experiences as a student, dental hygienist, and instructor and reminds us of the critical services and dental training the Russell Street Clinic provides to the community. The clinic continues to do important work in destigmatizing care for HIV+ patients and is a leading example of the power of establishing a sense of trust between provider and patient.

Find the full transcript in OHSU’s Digital Collections.