Dental hygiene senior Tino Veliz, CDT, (center) has helped dental students like Mayra Martinez, Sonia Henriquez, Parker Long and Jeremiah Alcazar perfect lab skills, such as setting teeth for a complete denture, as in this photo. Photo by Brian Schnupp.
Dental hygiene senior Juventino "Tino" Veliz wasn't surprised when students working on DDS degrees at The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston started asking him for help.
“I have a lot of friends who are dentists and they told me, ‘Tino, once you get into the hygiene program, all the dental students are going to come bug you about lab work,’” he said. “I knew it was coming. I was happy to help them.”
Veliz, 35, will graduate from the School of Dentistry in May with a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene, but before he started the program, he was a certified dental technician (CDT) for 12 years and still has the credential. With faculty permission, he’s spent about 20 to 30 hours helping dental students this year, in addition to maintaining his own 3.9 GPA.
“I’m teaching them something I really enjoy, which is lab,” he said. “When they begin working they’re going to be sending their work out, (but) I tell them it’s important to learn it because they can avoid remakes and they can avoid using chair time on the same patient over and over.”
Dental Hygiene Program Director and Associate Professor Jayne McWherter, RDH, MEd, said she cannot recall ever having a student with such an extensive dental lab background.
“He’s genuinely a neat guy with a lot of knowledge,” she said. “He’s so personable and works with his fellow classmates, as well as all the dental students, staff and faculty here.”
Growing up, Veliz didn’t envision a career in dentistry, but a year of refinery work in Baytown inspired him to follow his brother into the dental lab business.
He moved to Harlingen to study dental laboratory technology at Texas State Technical College, then returned to Houston to work for Southern Dental Associates. He also started his own lab business.
“I’m certified in complete dentures, so I was setting teeth and making full dentures and partials,” he said. “I love the lab field. You have to be an artist, trying to make something out of nothing.”
Eventually, the company transferred Veliz to a new office to work with a dentist who wanted to have an in-house lab.
“I was able to work chairside with a dentist,” he said. “I was able to actually see how my prostheses looked in the person’s mouth. It was very satisfying to see them smile with the dentures I made them, the retainer I made them, with the bridge I made them.”
One of the patients who made an impression on Veliz was a woman in her 40s who had seven or eight teeth with decay. She was in a lot of pain.
“The doctor decided we would do that one for free,” he said. “We extracted all her teeth and made her a complete denture the same day. She cried, and she was very happy. She came back a couple of weeks later and thanked us and sent the office flowers. It was very touching.”
Those types of interactions made him rethink his career.
“At that point I knew I wanted to be more involved with my patients, and that’s when I decided to go back to school,” he said.
Veliz took some prerequisites at Lee College so he could apply for the UTSD Dental Hygiene Program. In the meantime, he kept working.
“I sold my two vehicles; I sold my boat; I moved back in with some relatives; I paid off my debt, and I saved enough money to sustain for two years,” he said.
The Dental Hygiene Program has proved more challenging than the lab technician program, Veliz said.
“What makes it more difficult is the requirements we have in clinic,” he said. “You basically don’t know what you’re getting every time you see a patient.”
After graduation, he looks forward to working as a dental hygienist and resuming his lab business. He believes his prior experience will make him a better dental hygienist.
“What’s going to make a difference is that, as a dental technician, I know what type of restorative treatment my patient needs already,” he said. “I know if they need a crown, what kind of crown they need. I know if their partial or denture isn’t fitting correctly or misaligned. I know if they need a new one.”
He’s also already planning to go back to school.
“This is not the end for me. I love dentistry — I love it so much,” he said. “A lot of faculty, a lot of dental students, a lot of dentists have been pushing me to go all the way.”
He plans to enroll at the University of Houston to take five more classes so he can apply for dental school.
“I’m going to have a lot on my plate,” he said. “I would love to become a dentist. That means I’ll be able to do more for my patients. I’ll have experience in every aspect of the dental field.”
McWherter said some dental hygiene graduates have gone on to dental school in the past. “I think he could be successful at anything he wanted to do,” she said. “That would be great, if that’s what he wants.”
Jen Sansbury is a freelance writer based in Houston. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, she is an award-winning journalist and former journalism educator. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.