Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
A person who is new to Southwest Virginia and the Bluefield College campus is working to bring years of experience to bear on creating a new dental school, which could train the region’s next generation of dentists.
Dr. Francis G. Serio, DMD, MS, MBA, was recently appointed dean of the Bluefield College School of Dental Medicine. The school now exists only as a site, plans, and an organizational charge taking shape in Serio’s office, but Serio’s enthusiasm for the school is building already. His journey to Virginia started years ago.
“I grew up in New York on Long Island. I come from a family of 12 kids, so it was an interesting, growing up,” Serio recalled. “I left New York, and I went to college in Baltimore, went to John Hopkins, and went to dental school in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania. Then I went back to Baltimore and did a one-year general dentistry residency.”
After completing his residency, Serio embarked on his own teaching career. He also started using his new skills and knowledge to help people in need.
“Then I started teaching at the University of Maryland in 1981 and started going to the Dominican (Republic) in 1982, which is unusual,” he said. “Most dentists go later in their career when they’re established and all that. I had some influence both from a close friend of mine; and my dad had never gone on a mission trip, but he was a general dentist and with 12 kids you have to spend a lot of your time working. So I heard about the possibilities of mission trips.”
“After my second year out of dental school, first year working for the University of Maryland, I used my vacation time to go on the trip. It was through the Catholic Medical Mission Board. They made the initial contact,” he said.
Serio’s father was a general dentist in Queens, New York, but Serio swore when he started college that he would never be a dentist.
“I thought I wanted to be a physician, but early on I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. It took me a while,” he stated. “When you’re young, you don’t always realize the answers to some of your questions are sitting right in front of you.”
Serio emphasized how glad he was that he made that career choice years ago.
“Since the day I decided I wanted to become a dentist, which was back in 1975, I have not had a second’s regret,” he said with a big smile. “I have loved being a dentist. I could run the chamber of commerce for dentistry. I’ve had a great life, a great career. I’ve been able to do all kinds of things as the dentist in practice, but I’ve been in academics, done research, published books, and gone all over the world doing voluntary dental things. I’ve been to 13 different countries doing volunteer work, either clinical things or teaching.”
Serio’s travels have taken him to Vietnam, Belize, Jamaica, Haiti, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany and other nations. Besides being able to help people in other countries, a love of dentistry has kept him in the profession.
“I think three things that got me in the first place were the people, just the science in general, and the hands,” he said. “Working with my hands. I do woodworking, I do a lot of carpentry. I spent two or three days at Christmas putting in shelves in the attic for my wife, which I love to do. I just had a great time doing it. I just love doing that stuff.”
Serio is a periodontist, a gum specialist.
“I’m a gum guy,” he said. “What got me interested in that was the surgical aspects, and also the science of immunology, microbiology and all those things. I’m fascinated by all that stuff.”
Inquires from a search committee brought Serio to Bluefield College. He was not seeking a new position, and he was working already at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, where he was an associate dean for clinical affairs. He had helped start a new school at that university.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, but the mission here, being a faith-based school, reaching out to the under-served, starting another new school – I helped to start the new school at East Carolina – and even though I am a specialist, I love working with general dentists and training general dentists. I was at Mississippi for 17 years and we trained general dentists. That’s what we did primarily at the University of Mississippi.”
A new school of dental medicine, to be located at the Bluestone Business and Technology Center, would serve the region in several ways.
“Number one, this region needs more dentists, period,” Serio said. “Number two, statically, 50 percent of the dentists are over the age of 55, so 10 years from now, there is really going to be a crisis unless something is done. There are not enough young dentists coming back into the region.”
One goal is to persuade a percentage of dentists trained at the new school to stay in the region.
“Generally speaking, people wouldn’t see this as their first place to migrate to, so our thrust is going to be to create an interest in dentistry as a career among the people in the region,” Serio said. “Two, recruit people from the region who have an interest in staying in the region whether it’s Tazewell County, Southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, central Appalachian, basically.”
The college and local supporters are now working to get a firm footing to get the school started, Serio said. The current plan is to open in August 2016. One goal is to have the students do their clinical training in the area and help needy people at the same time.
“The model is going to be that they will get their clinical training in their third year. In the forth year, they will rotate through clinics. The dental school we are modeling ourselves after is in Mesa, Arizona. The Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health. We are modeling ourselves after them, and I was out there in December to see how their operation works. They have really done a very good job organizing their clinical sites and their clinical training in the school,” Serio stated.
People who come to the clinics would be asked to pay, but the fees would be below what they would usually pay.
“Potentially, some of it will be sliding scale. We don’t have the funding to give it away,” Serio said. Asking people to pay something, even if it is a small amount, is a lesson he learned in the Dominican Republic. Nuns there insisted Serio and his fellow volunteers charge for their services.
“If you didn’t pay for something, it doesn’t have any value to you. But if you paid five bucks, 10 bucks, something, it has value to you,” Serio said.
People sometimes paid five pesos, as little as 15 cents, for dental treatment. In turn, the communities the dentists visited provided lunch. Money paid for service helped fund the meal.
In Southwest Virginia and the surrounding area, fees at the new dental school clinics “will be a significant reduction from private practice fees, because basically you will be trading time for money. It takes longer to do things in a training situation than it would if you went to a practitioner who had been doing it for 20 years. All dental schools operate that way. We’re looking for people who have more time than money, that’s what we’re looking for,” Serio said.
Serio plans to continue participating in overseas missions, and hopes dental school students will be able to join the missions, too.
“The official name is the Dominican Dental Mission Project, and this coming summer is our 33rd consecutive summer of going,” Serio said. “I went for the first time since I was 28, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Haven’t missed a summer in 33 years.”