Bringing healthy smiles to the faces of young children and adults is the passion of Meridian Community College alumna Carla Bassett.
A registered dental hygienist, Bassett serves as a Regional Oral Health Consultant in the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Office of Oral Health. A 1997 graduate of MCC’s Dental Hygiene Technology program, Bassett found her niche in educating people, particularly the parents of preschool children, on the importance of good oral health in the fight against dental disease in the state.
“As a dental hygienist in private practice, I love the rapport you build with your patients and their families. You get to know their children and watch them grow over the years. You feel really connected to your patients,” said Bassett, noting that one of her former patients in private practice was the videographer at her daughter’s wedding last fall.
“Public health is much different than private practice. In public health, I can work on a much broader level, educating entire communities on the importance of good oral health, leading to improved health outcomes and the prevention of oral disease,” she said. “It is much more gratifying to me.”
Bassett, who lives in the Louin community of Jasper County, works with county health departments in a 14-county region, including Lauderdale and its surrounding counties. She provides education on the importance of good oral health, conducts disease surveillance screenings, participates in community awareness events and promotes the benefits of community water fluoridation.
A native of Laurel, Bassett started working for a local dental office when she was a senior in high school, scrubbing instruments and watching how the hygienist interacted with her patients. She was intrigued and admired the hygienist’s job.
Shortly after graduation and still working at the dental office, she married Chad Bassett, her high school sweetheart since the eighth grade. They had sons Chase and Curt by the time Bassett enrolled in MCC’s Dental Hygiene Technology program, where she was one of only three married students in her class.
Her last semester in the program was very challenging. Daughter Collyn was born, and she returned to class two weeks later while still breastfeeding. She carpooled with two other students from Laurel each day, stopping at a babysitter’s house in Meridian to drop off her newborn and youngest son. After classes, she picked up her children and headed home to take care of her family, usually with one of her classmates, giving her daughter a bottle on the drive back.
She gives a lot of credit to her MCC instructors and program administrators for preparing her to work in dental hygiene and for supporting her during that last semester in doing what was best for her family.
“MCC paved the way for me professionally and personally to where I am today,” said Bassett. “Not only was I prepared clinically and challenged by the Dental Hygiene Program to have exceptional skills as a hygienist, but I was prepared professionally for my career in public health utilizing speaking and writing knowledge acquired from MCC. Even years after graduation, MCC staff members still assisted me with professional guidance.”
After earning her associate’s degree in dental hygiene, Bassett was able to work sporadically while raising her young family, which she says is an advantage of the profession. In 1998 she went to work as a hygienist at a dental office in Hattiesburg. Between her husband working nights in law enforcement and the demands of her children’s schoolwork and sports activities, she decided it was time for a change that better suited her family’s life and took a position with a dentist in her hometown in 2002.
In 2006, she decided to switch to public health and took the job as the Regional Oral Health Consultant.
“Carla hasn’t been afraid to make a change in our profession,” said Delia Harwell, her former dental hygiene instructor at MCC. “She practiced awhile in private practice and then learned of the health department hiring dental hygienists to go into a more public capacity. This was new at the time, and Carla accepted the responsibility of stepping out of her comfort zone.”
Through her public health experience, Bassett also serves as Mississippi’s Dental Hygiene Liaison for the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness. In a volunteer role, she helps to promote oral health for pregnant women and children enrolled in Head Start and private daycares.
This volunteer work led to her being selected to be one of three Dental Hygiene Liaisons interviewed for an article in the December 2019 issue of Access Magazine, a publication of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Each year, Bassett returns to the MCC Dental Hygiene Program, one of only five in the state, to conduct a lecture on community dental health. What started as a one-hour discussion has evolved into an entire class period with question-and-answer talks, handouts and a review of current disease surveillance data for the state.
“I invite Carla each spring to speak to our second-year dental hygiene students so that they can learn about a hygiene job other than general dentistry,” Harwell said. “With Carla’s position, she can collect disease surveillance data and apply fluoride varnish for disease prevention. Carla is a positive role model for our students. She encourages them to embrace and support change in dentistry.”
Bassett likes to challenge the students and motivate them to connect with public health programs as they prepare to work in clinical settings. She also provides handouts and reading literature for the students to use for public health research while in school and as professional resources upon graduation.
”This is a great way for students to catch a glimpse of what all their degree can provide upon graduation,” she said. “It is important for students to see the collaboration they can have while working in private practice offices.
“We are constantly coordinating with local dental providers in private settings to work in the community with awareness events,” she said. “I can’t do my job adequately without the support of local dentists and hygienists in the community. Between community water fluoridation and access to dental care needs in low-income communities, private practice hygienists can still make a difference in combating public health disparities.”
Photo: At a 2019 fall semester Dental Hygiene Program Q&A session, Carla Bassett, left, poses for a photo opportunity with her former instructor Delia Harwell, MCC Dental Hygiene Program instructor. Bassett serves as regional oral health consultant in the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Office of Oral Health.