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Jocko Valley local returns home with a dentist degree and desire to serve

By B.L. Azure

The Polson THHS Dental Clinic staff showed their warm and fuzzy side to several Early Childhood Services classes Halloween day. (B.L. Azure photo) The Polson THHS Dental Clinic staff showed their warm and fuzzy side to several Early Childhood Services classes Halloween day. (B.L. Azure photo)

POLSON — The adage: “You can never go home,” doesn’t hold much sway in Indian Country, where you can always go home. It is always there, terra firma that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a lighted harbor in the night, a warm blanket in the chill — a spiritual hug of inclusion that doesn’t exist with the masses of individuals in the world outside of Indian Country.

Thirty-nine-year-old Darby Lefler recently returned home to Indian Country here on the Flathead Reservation. He was beckoned by the spiritual under current that tugs at the soul of those Indians who leave their homelands for the larger world beyond reservation boundaries. It was part homesickness and part sense of purpose: to come back home to help the people, the tribal people that pulled Lefler back.

“I was ready to come back home when I was twenty,” Lefler said. “This has been a long time coming.”

Lefler graduated from Arlee High School in 1991 then attended the University of Montana for a short time. However the University didn’t have a tight bite on the young Arleesian the first go round. A thin wallet with sparse folding money was a motivating factor to leave the University to make a buck.

He found a decent-paying job and a nomadic lifestyle in the construction field, building radio and cell-phone towers throughout much of the western United States.

Jocko Valley homeboy, Dr. Darby Lefler, recently joined the THHS Dental Clinic staff as a pedodonist, a much needed dental profession that focuses on young children’s dentist. (B.L. Azure photo) Jocko Valley homeboy, Dr. Darby Lefler, recently joined the THHS Dental Clinic staff as a pedodonist, a much needed dental profession that focuses on young children’s dentist. (B.L. Azure photo)

“I was doing everything I could to turn a buck,” he said about his highly dangerous high-wire-act job where he worked tethered to towers ranging from 200- to nearly 900-feet. The taller ones took more than an hour to climb to the top. The views were good, the pay was good but something was missing in his turning-the-buck lifestyle.

While at the University of Montana, Lefler had sought a degree in microbiology. In the back of his mind, he always felt he had some uncompleted business to take care of.

While working near Baker on the vast eastern Montana prairies he received a call from his mother, Penny Lefler, about the National Society of American Indian Dentists’ confab taking place in Polson. The gathering featured Dr. George Blue Spruce, the first American Indian dentist in America.

“I was so excited about the conference and the opportunity to meet Blue Spruce that I loaded up after work and drove all night long to be in Polson,” Lefler said. The excitement soon turned to renewed commitment to finish work on his microbiology degree. He went back to the University in 2002 and graduated with a microbiology degree in 2005.

When attending UM the second time Lefler volunteered to work at various medical-related businesses and facilities.

“One day I started working in a dental clinic,” Lefler said. “I ended up working there for a year and a half, eventually becoming a dental assistant.”

The experience cemented Lefler’s commitment to dentistry.

Following graduation Lefler applied for enrollment at three dental schools. He was accepted at two and eventually chose the Arizona School of Dentistry in Mesa, Arizona. He enrolled in the fall of 2005 and graduated in 2009.

The ECS youngsters received dental screenings as well as entertainment from THHS dental staff, like Dr. Jeff Bird. (B.L. Azure photo) The ECS youngsters received dental screenings as well as entertainment from THHS dental staff, like Dr. Jeff Bird. (B.L. Azure photo)

“It is a relatively new private school that has public health as its mission. That is to deliver dental care to recognized under served populations,” Lefler said. “They want to educate students that want to serve those areas where people have limited access to quality dental care. There is tremendous health disparity in populations with low social or economic opportunities. That includes Indian reservations.”

Following dental school graduation, Lefler worked in a private practice in Missoula. However, Tribal Health and Human Services Department Director Kevin Howlett was aware of Lefler, a descendent of the Salish Tribe. Howlett and Dr. Gary Pitts, director of the THHS Dental Program put out feelers to Lefler and encouraged him to consider working for THHS.

“The children’s dentist was a missing part of the dental program that we felt was vital to fulfilling our mission,” Howlett said, adding that he has known Lefler and his family for most of his life. “Darby is a very personable person with a good outlook on life and a desire to serve.”

This past June Lefler started work at THHS with a toe-dipping approach testing the waters at THHS one day a week. One week he would be in St. Ignatius THHS Dental Clinic and the next he would be at Polson.

The toe-dip into the dental waters on the reservation proved to be warm and welcoming and Lefler recently accepted a full time position with THHS. He splits time between the two THHS Dental Clinics.

“We wanted him to try it out to give him insight on our program and policies, and to give us some insight on him,” Pitts said. “It worked out well for both parties and we offered him a contract this fall which he signed.”

“I feel well trained, educated for this position,” Lefler said. “I love working with kids. I used to coach wrestling and other sports. I have the patience needed for working with the young patients. That calm and caring demeanor is important when working with young children whether it’s coaching them or taking care of their dental needs. I am feeling very purposeful here. This is a great opportunity to be a part of this new program. I am the first pedodontist here and I want to build a quality program that serves the disadvantaged children for the right reasons.”

Polson THHS Dental Clinic staff staged activities, like the fishing booth, for the ECS children. (B.L. Azure photo)  Polson THHS Dental Clinic staff staged activities, like the fishing booth, for the ECS children. (B.L. Azure photo)

That commitment and youthful energy sets well with Pitts, who himself has worked on under served Indian reservations, including the Flathead Reservation once before this stint.

“The pedodontic (children’s dentist) position is new. It always has been more of a dream to get a pedodontist on staff,” said Pitts. Pedodontic dentists treat children from 2 to 5 years old. “I made a run at this position before when I worked for the Indian Health Service in Browning.”

Pitts wrote a successful grant while at Browning that funded the pedodontic education of a tribal person. However, it didn’t work out well because the person selected and educated soon left the IHS to work in the private sector.

“We had a hidden agenda of sorts, with bringing the conference here,” Pitts said about the National Society of American Indian Dentists’ conference. “We brought in some young adults so we would have some people in the seats who might get hooked on the possibility of becoming a dentist. Darby was there too. He showed a commitment by driving all night across the state to be there. We recognized that.”

The result is an equation that is more than the sum of its parts and provides dental services for young tribal children so they don’t have to go off the reservation for dental work.

“We feel the expanded services will serve our community well,” Pitts said. The nearest pedodontists are located in Missoula and Kalispell. “A lot of the people we serve were taking their children to dentists just off the reservation.”

Last week, Lefler got a chance to meet with lots of potential young patients at the Polson THHS Dental Clinic’s Halloween open house and tour for students in the Early Childhood Services program.

“This is great,” he said. “We want children to come to us without the fear that commonly goes with dental visits. This way they see us in another light.”

It is a bright and unthreatening light that will show youngsters and their parents the path to good dental hygiene.

Darby and wife Emily were recently blessed with their first child, 4-month-old daughter, Grace.

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