Located 50 miles south of the Canadian border, on the edge of the Bearpaw and Little Rocky Mountains, Anita Masaitis, RDH, DMD., '82, takes a deep breath, grips her dark hair into a ponytail, and steps into the waiting room. Once again, the room is filled with patients, all Native Americans; many of which will wait for hours to have the only dentist for miles examine them. They look up at her from their seats.
"It's like a MASH unit in here," Masaitis says. "We have to triage the patients to determine who needs care the most for the day and send the others home." Oftentimes, it is the patients themselves who help make the call.
Masaitis runs the Eagle Child Health Clinic, a satellite clinic in a one of the most rural Native American reservations in the country. She is stationed at the Fort Belknap Service Unit in northern Montana, which covers patients throughout the 1,200 square miles of reservation in Blaine and Phillips counties. In addition, there are 29,731 acres of tribal land outside the reservation boundaries. The reservation is home to the Gros Ventre (Ah Ah Nee Nin) and Assiniboine (Nakoda) Nations.
"Most dentists have approximately 1,500 people in their service area," Masaitis states. "I have over 6,000." Masaitis describes the area as very poverty stricken. "It's like a forgotten, third-world country here. These people are very underserved and in need of major health care."
So how did this Nanticoke, Pennsylvania resident find herself living on an Indian reservation in a small rural town in northern Montana? According to Masaitis, it was a long journey. "I grew up in the Hanover section of Nanticoke," says Masaitis, then known as Anita Hromchak. "My family owned Kasians Grocery Store where I worked since I was a child." When her father passed away, Masaitis and her mother were forced to accept welfare. "It was a very difficult time for me."
After high school she chose Luzerne County Community College. She started her education studying to become a nurse, but then changed to a dental hygiene major. "The program was new and exciting and I felt the career would be flexible enough to find a job anywhere," she says. "LCCC gave me the opportunity to change my life," Masaitis says. "I felt proud to get off welfare and the college started me on my career path."
She met her significant other around the same time she started at LCCC. "We met at a funeral home in Wilkes-Barre at a kid's birthday party - we had a mutual friend whose family were morticians," says Masaitis. "David was dressed as Big Bird and I got a flat tire. He changed my flat and we soon fell in love." After graduating as an RDH in 1982, she and David decided to leave her small town of Nanticoke and travel the country. She hit the big cities and traveled the four corners of the United States taking jobs as a dental hygienist in each town they stayed. After years of traveling, Masaitis felt something was still missing from her life.
In 2003, while in the Colorado, Masaitis decided to enroll in the University of Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine. "I loved dental hygiene, but I wanted to work in public health and knew I needed to do more," Masaitis says. "I graduated Cum Laude with a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) at age 46."
Armed with her degree in RDH and now a DMD, she went in search of an ideal location she could serve people who needed her help the most. She soon found her calling at the Fort Belknap Service Unit employed by the United States Indian Health Services. "This is where I wanted to be," Masaitis says. "This reservation hadn't had a dentist for two years. The residents were pulling their own teeth out and many were in severe pain. These people really need my help."
Masaitis spends three-quarters of her day on dental surgeries. A patient recently came in for an appointment. Dr Masiatis took his blood pressure first before administering anesthesia. "This is a technique I learned at LCCC." The patient's blood pressure registered way above normal. "This guy was ready to have a stroke," she says. Masaitis immediately sent him to the emergency unit.
Masiatis has become close to the Native American people that she serves. "My entire staff is Native American. They are a very caring and strong people. There are a lot of health problems across the reservation and the teeth decay and infection rate here is double that in more urban areas. They are proud people and are rich in many ways that no money can buy," Masaitis notes.
The couple, along with their dog, Buster, and cat, Libby have been living in the rural reservation for two years now. She says she's happy living in a small town again. "I had to give up my cell phone because service doesn't reach this area very well. And although it takes three hours to get to the nearest Wal-Mart (round trip), this is my home. After living in big cities, I can't believe I came back to what I ran away from at age 18."
"This is one of the most rewarding professions anyone can have," Masaitis says. "You gain respect from the community as a professional and you gain personal gratification for your work inside your heart. I feel like a million bucks at the end of the day."