Oral hygienist Amber Lombardi drives miles for smiles.
As Oral Health Coordinator for the Opportunity Alliance, Amber Lombardi was providing preventative care at Southern Maine schools—until the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I wasn’t sleeping, thinking about these hundreds of kids who I wasn’t going to see,” Lombardi says. “Some of these kids have emergent dental needs. Infections in their mouths. Rampant decay. Things that physically affect their whole body, how they eat, how they sleep. It was hard for me to accept that they wouldn’t get care.”
Rather than come to that acceptance, she ordered a trailer to be outfitted as a mobile dental office and went into practice as an independent practice dental hygienist, continuing to work with the Opportunity Alliance.
“This has been a dream of mine for the last 13 years, at least,” says Lombardi, 35, leading the way into her small but fully functional clinic on wheels. “I had been looking into it, and I said to my husband Mike, ‘I know we’re in a pandemic and that this is the most insane thing I’ve ever said to you. But I need to do this, and the time is now.’”
In some ways, Lombardi was destined for this work. She’s the only child of Marc and Judy Craig, a dentist and dental assistant. They saw patients in their Cheshire, Connecticut, office six days a week and went on emergency calls on Sundays. Marc Craig also traveled regularly to help run a dental clinic in Jérémie, Haiti, and he brought along his daughter once she was a teenager.
“That was my first real taste of public health work in action,” Lombardi says. “After high school, I took a gap year down there. I spent time in feeding clinics, weighing babies, and teaching about breastfeeding. I did eye exams. I would go into the mountains and do checkups with the doctors. We transported bodies for burials. The mission was to take care of the dying and to treat people who no one else wanted to treat. I was inspired by how they do healthcare in Haiti, treating people in homes and in the streets.”
More trips to Haiti punctuated her life in the family dental practice. Meanwhile, by the time she was 23, she was married and had a son. Less than two years later, she had a daughter born prematurely with special needs. Under those stressors, her marriage was failing and would ultimately end in divorce.
“When I told my dad I wanted to go to hygiene school, he suggested that I just work for him for the rest of my life,” Lombardi says. “I felt trapped.”
She drove up to Maine to apply to the new dental program at University of New England.
“I read about Maine’s demographics and about the immigrant population in Portland, and I felt like this was where I was supposed to be,” Lombardi says. “I went home and told my ex-husband that I was going to Maine. I said, ‘I need to do this, this is my dream.’”
And he let her go.
“Sometimes you just have to start over again,” says Lombardi, who moved to Maine in 2013. “I knew that I was starting over, with no money, no job, and two kids under the age of five. But I also knew—and this has never been lost on me—that I had opportunities that other people don’t have, have never had, and I knew that I had to use that to better myself to help other people.”
Three months of random temp jobs were followed by a position as a receptionist for Maine Medical Pediatrics Gastroenterology, where she referred patients to clinics all over Maine and asked a lot of questions that didn’t pertain to gastroenterology.
“But my daughter kept getting sick,” Lombardi says. “Her lungs were really weak. She ended up at Maine Medical Center, and I had to use up all my sick time—literally just across the skywalk at the same hospital. They told me they were going to have to let me go.”
Lombardi accepted a part-time job at a medical call center—and opened the door to people willing to help her and her children. The YMCA. Then the Boys & Girls Clubs and Our Lady of Hope. Nonprofits stepped up with childcare. With food. With winter coats.
“All these local grassroots organizations helped build me, helped build this,” Lombardi says, gesturing to the mobile dental clinic.
Not that dental school went as planned. First, Lombardi hadn’t taken her dental certification boards in Connecticut and had to redo her clinical hours in Maine. Then she had a big interruption—twice. She broke a wrist, which meant stretching her clinical hours out over two years. And then, a month before the board exams, she shattered her wrist again, breaking a bone that had a blood supply and putting her in a cast for a year.
Finally, she graduated in 2018 with a degree in oral hygiene—rather than dentistry.
“After the accident with my wrist, the longevity of my career was compromised, and I had to make a really hard choice,” Lombardi says. “Either I went back and did the full dental program after the hygiene program or I could focus on this. On public health.”
While at UNE, she’d immersed herself in public health, including leading a health program with a dental component at Cumberland County Corrections Facility. She volunteered at Preble Street, at Greater Portland Health, and at Milestone Recovery.
“I wanted to learn about what federally qualified health centers did, what nonprofits did, what it looked like to fund a clinic in a school,” Lombardi says. “I needed to really understand the system enough to change it. Because every time I’d talk to someone, they’d say, ‘But this is how it is.’ And I just cannot accept that this is how it is, that dental care has to be a luxury, that you can only have great dental care if you have great insurance, if you have stability.”
Her first job out of college was, in fact, running dental clinics out of public schools. Meanwhile, she enrolled in the public health master’s program at Southern New Hampshire University and collected $50,000 worth of dental equipment in hopes of starting a dental school clinic at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland.
“I had this whole dream,” Lombardi says. “But it didn’t work. See, I need this trailer. I can pull up, treat their inmates and pull back out.”
Every setback, she says, propelled her forward. Even the part-time job at the medical call center, where she kept a tally of how many people called with tooth pain and how many ended up at the emergency room.
“I wanted to give them advice, but, legally, I couldn’t,” Lombardi says. “I knew, when I was at my lowest, that when I was able to, I would help those people. It lit a fire under me to have a mobile clinic.”
Like her father—who is approaching retirement and planning a move to Maine to work with his daughter—Lombardi also does house calls and accepts patients that many others would turn away.
“I’m hoping to go help grassroots organizations,” Lombardi says. “Like Maine Needs, Presente Maine, and the Maine Access Immigrant Network. My idea is that I’ll be able to go into housing developments or outpatient clinics or church parking lots. I want to bring care to people and focus on Medicare/Medicaid and people who don’t have insurance or who need a sliding scale fee. And, once my dad comes up and works with me, we’ll be able to offer more extensive dental care.”
Lombardi says that when she accepted the whole “it takes a village” mantra, the village was there for her. No one more so than Mike Lombardi, who became her husband in 2016.
“If I could put photos on the wall of how many people helped me get here to do this, my walls would be covered,” Lombardi says. “Everything that I did, when I think about it now, it all happened the way it was supposed to. All the hard stuff had to happen for this to be what it is now. I’m really proud of it, and I hope that I’m in the community for a long time.”
For more information: www.mainelyteeth.com.