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As a child, Jennifer Caswell let nothing stand in her way. Even in high school, when others said she couldn't, she not only did, but she excelled. That determination translated into a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, despite a congenital birth defect that left her with just two fingers on her right hand, at Old Dominion University's commencement May 6.

Caswell was born with the musculo-skeletal defect; her right hand never fully developed and she has just a pinky and thumb on the hand. In a world where so much is hand-operated, she quickly learned to adapt and adjust.

"I never had a problem. I've always been able to do what I wanted to do," said Caswell, whose positive attitude dismissed any barriers to her goals.

At age seven, she taught herself to play the piano. In high school, she taught herself to type.

"They wouldn't let me take a typing class in high school because the teacher said she wouldn't know how to teach me. Now, I can type faster than most people," she said, explaining that she uses a hunt-and-peck technique that she's mastered to a science.

Caswell, who grew up in Hampton and attended Kecoughtan High School, first became interested in dental hygiene as a career after a friend's aunt told her how much she enjoyed the work.

"When I applied to the dental hygiene program at Old Dominion, I never considered what role my disability may play," she said. "I just knew I wanted to study dental hygiene and the rest would come later."

Prior to starting the program, Caswell met with Deborah Bauman, associate professor of dental hygiene and the first-year clinical instructor. The pair toured the clinic to look for obstacles, but Caswell found none.

"Tasks which Mrs. Bauman suggested may give me problems were just variations of daily tasks I had performed all my life."

Despite her positive outlook, Caswell does admit to some frustrations her first year.

"Learning to hold a mouth mirror and control instruments with my right hand was exasperating," she recalled. "The repetitive movements and amount of control required gave me cramps in my hand and exhausted my arm muscles."

Eventually she mastered the skills. But then her "fear of seeing patients" surfaced. Up to that point, Caswell had been treating friends and family members. Now it was time to treat strangers.

"I wondered how he or she would react to my disability. I questioned whether clients would trust my abilities, whether they would feel sorry for me, and whether I was ready to answer questions about my disability."

She soon discovered her fears were unfounded.

"I have never once had a patient question my ability as a hygienist, let alone ask questions about my hand," she said. "With the exception of curious children, most patients do not notice or do not ask. And because I am an educated and skilled dental hygienist, I like it that way."

Caswell, who was awarded the American Dental Hygienists' Association 1999-2000 Dr. Alfred C. Fones Scholarship, was invited to make presentations on her work at the American Association of Dental Schools annual meeting in March and the American Dental Hygienists' Association annual meeting in June. She is currently working in a dental office in Virginia Beach.

This article was posted on: May 11, 2000

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