This is another in a series of profiles of health care professionals who have benefited from the Massachusetts Loan Repayment Program (MLRP). The MLRP works to increase access to comprehensive primary care in underserved areas, by providing up to $50,000 towards outstanding educational loans for health professionals who commit to work at an eligible health care organization for two full-time years.
Coming from a family of doctors, Dr. Caroline Clerisme was inspired to become a physician. As a child in Haiti, Dr. Clerisme enjoyed seeing how her mother, a dermatologist, interacted with and cared for her patients. Her own positive experience with her orthodontist and braces led Caroline to pursue a degree in dentistry – first by completing her undergraduate studies at Suffolk University and and then receiving her degree in dentistry from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.
During her fourth year in dental school, Caroline worked an externship at a community health center in Plainfield, Vermont, where the patient population was low-income and overwhelmingly underserved. Many of the patients had to travel long distances to receive care, either by car or even by foot. Dr. Clerisme found this experience to be both professionally and personally rewarding.
In September of 2011, Dr. Clerisme began working as a general dentist at the Fitchburg Community Health Center, where today she is the site’s lead dentist. Dr. Clerisme also serves as a supervising dentist for the dental hygiene program at Mount Wachusett Community College. At the community health center, she treats patients of all ages, with care ranging from preventive, to restorative, to emergency visits. Her patient population is heavily comprised of persons of low socioeconomic status, speaking a wide array of languages, all with varying ethnic backgrounds. Dr. Clerisme is fortunate to speak French, Haitian Creole, and some Spanish, languages spoken by many of her patients. Caroline feels that her ability to communicate in patients’ primary language helps her to deliver better care. In addition to treating patients’ dental needs, Dr. Clerisme also teaches patients how to improve their oral health habits through good oral hygiene practices, combined with proper nutrition and diet.
Speaking about the Fitchburg Community Health Center, Dr. Clerisme says, “I love it there; I am blessed and fortunate to have found such a great job.” The center is composed of providers from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This provides for an improved clinical experience for the health center’s non-English speaking patients, many of whom feel more comfortable being treated by a dentist from a similar culture.
“Every day is different at the center,” Dr. Clerisme told us, “I don’t really have a typical day and each day comes with its own challenges.” One of the biggest challenges she faces is her patients’ fear of the dentist. For many patients, this is their first time visiting a dentist in the United States, and they do not know what to expect. Dr. Clerisme overcomes this barrier by ensuring that her patients feel comfortable, and explaining each procedure in step-by-step detail.
While searching for positions following her graduation from dental school, Dr. Clerisme knew she wanted to work with underserved populations, but could not ignore her educational loan debt. Through her online searches regarding loan repayment programs Dr. Clerisme discovered the Massachusetts Loan Repayment Program (MLRP). Soon after she was hired at the Fitchburg Community Health Center, she applied and was accepted to the MLRP. “I was excited, blessed, and humbled to have been a recipient,” she says.
“I am thankful there are loan repayment programs, because they definitely encourage providers who have loans to be able to give back to the community by caring for people of lower socioeconomic status,” she says. In conclusion, she adds, “I really love dentistry and working at the health center, and the MLRP has allowed me to enjoy my work even more by relieving some financial stress.”