It all started in the spring of 1964, when, as a 17 year-old high school student dressed in her suit complete with a pill box hat, gloves, and high heels, Clare Shaffer, RDH, MS, walked into the Eastman Dental Dispensary to interview for a student position in the Eastman School for Dental Hygiene.
Unbeknownst to Clare, that was the time when Eastman Director Dr. Basil Bibby, began a partnership with Monroe Community College so students completing the dental hygiene program would graduate with an Associate's in Applied Science degree, instead of a Certificate of Completion, as they had for the previous 50 years.
She wasn't expecting the large group who interviewed her, including leaders from the Dental Dispensary and MCC. Clare was accepted and became one of the students in the classes that went to both institutions during the transition of moving the program to MCC, thus giving students more career and advancement opportunities.
"We did our clinical coursework at the Eastman Dental Center on Main Street, took our MCC classes on Alexander Street in the old East High School building, and our gym classes were held at the Jewish Community Center on University Avenue," Clare recalled.
After working in private practice for a short time, Clare went back to school for a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Education with a goal of teaching dental hygiene. She got a job working for the Monroe County School Dental Health Program, whose office was coincidentally at the Eastman Dental Dispensary. She helped school children receive dental exams, cleanings, fluoride treatments and classroom education on oral health topics. In 1970, the County and City School Dental Health Programs merged, and all the staff became employees of the Eastman Dental Center.
"A short time later, I was hired as a Dental Health Educator in the Community Dentistry Department," Clare explained, "where I was a project administrator on numerous community based service programs and research grants involving clinical trials of pit and fissure sealant materials, fluoride releasing devices, mouth rinses, dentifrice, prenatal vitamin supplementation, epidemiological studies of caries prediction, dental insurance plan utilization and oral health care needs assessment of several community population, as well as barriers to the receipt of dental care.
"We traveled a great deal throughout the eastern United States, learning all the unique needs of these populations, assisting with various research projects like sealants, mouth rinses, and issues that relate to the oral health needs of children and geriatric populations,” she explained. "So much has changed since those early days.”
For example, Clare used to have to plug into the switchboard to have an operator connect her phone calls, a dramatic difference to the convenience of the cell phone she uses today along with the teleconferences and teledentistry she has used to communicate.
“In 1965, the number of residents at the Dispensary was 50 (48 males and 2 females) and they followed a traditional school calendar from September to June,” she said. “Today, we have over 100 residents and trainees, 50 percent of whom are female, and their programs follow a 12 month calendar year.
In addition, Clare has seen and helped advocate for a change in dental hygienists’ responsibilities and duties. In the early 1980's, Clare was part of the Eastman group and other community dental hygienists who went to City Hall to petition the New York State Board of Education to make it legal for hygienists to apply sealants. Their efforts were successful, the State Practice Act was changed, which expanded the duties of dental hygienists and improved dental care practice.
"New and better dental materials have evolved during my career," she said, "I used to have to mix silver alloy pellets with mercury droplets to make an amalgam preparation. Today the delivery system is much safer and easier to prepare. We also have the plastic filling materials systems." The evolution of dental radiography has also greatly improved the process and quality of the images and made it safer for both the patient and the provider.
Before her retirement at the end of 2015, the most recent chapter in her career had been as an Administrator for EIOH's Office for Quality Improvement and Compliance, where she was the Director of the Eastman Dental Center's Infection Prevention and Control Program, Fire Safety Coordinator, Risk Manager and Credentials Coordinator, to name a few of her responsibilities.
“In the two years I’ve known Clare, I’ve been incredibly impressed with her passion for the Institute and her commitment to our patients, faculty and staff,” said Eli Eliav, EIOH director. “She’s been invaluable to EIOH and she will be missed very much.”
“For 20 years, I have witnessed first-hand Clare’s unwavering commitment to patients, faculty, residents and staff,” said Holly Barone, RDH, MS, chief administrative officer. “Her work ethic is exemplary and she sets a high standard for herself and everyone around her.
“Clare continues to strive for excellence and is well respected and is often called upon for her expertise and astonishing historical memory,” Holly added. “Her work has had a remarkable impact on the lives of thousands of patients, faculty, residents and staff. In 2007, the Shaffer-Devries award was established to recognize staff for demonstrating sustained excellence in administrative operations or clinical service. Given her interminable excellence over more than 40 years, the award was aptly named. Like all the greats who have come before her, we need to retire her jersey/lab coat – for there will never be another Clare!”
Eleven years ago, when Lenora Colaruotolo, LMSW, started as the new social worker, she was introduced to Clare who was described as a valuable resource, trusted clinician, knowledgeable historian and the go-to staff member, and a social worker at heart because of her compassion and commitment.
“Words fail to convey how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to work with Clare,” Lenora said. “That original introduction has been spot on. She has always been generous with her time, experience, and expertise, offering a listening ear and sage advice.”
Clare’s original interest in oral health, safety issues and teaching began when she was a young dental patient. Her family dentist, her school dental hygienist and a neighborhood mom who was a hygienist, all had a role in influencing her.
“My family dentist, who used to hold x-rays for his patients, ended up having his arm amputated because of so much radiation exposure,” Clare explained. “He had an artificial arm and ended up coming to Eastman where he learned how to continue working. He had never been trained on the safety issues such as using a lead apron. Thankfully he extended his practice by another several years.”
So what made her get up every morning to keep coming to the same place for 50 years?
“I stayed because I found great satisfaction and professional growth working with knowledgeable professionals,” she said. “I feel that I am part of a team whose educational goals, community programs and research projects work toward advancing the science of dentistry and providing clinical care to a diverse patient population. I really haven’t had the same job for 50 years… I have been very very lucky and have had great mentors through my whole professional time.”
“There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe Clare Shaffer’s many outstanding characteristics as a person and as the consummate professional,” said Ron Billings, DDS, MSD, who worked closely with Clare throughout his career at Eastman, including his role as director. “I have been privileged to call Clare my friend, mentor and colleague for the past 32 years. Clare is the penultimate go-to person and was the rock of Community Dentistry during the years we worked together on many research projects, teaching assignments and community outreach activities.
“To sum up Clare’s personhood, generous nature and contributions to EIOH, her profession, her family, her community, her friends, is impossible,” Dr. Billings added. “The absolute best one can say is that Clare Shaffer measures up to the very highest standards of professional and personal standards of excellence. She is truly a person for all seasons.”
Clare is motivated by the desire to learn – from other people as well as herself.
“Every year I see young people come to our programs willing to learn,” she said. “We’re all here to help them... I was lucky to walk into a gold mine…once you’ve got the gold mine, you’re not going to give it up.” While some days she has missed the patient contact, she knows her role has been a valuable one. “The need for regulations is necessary to function at a high level. Checks and balances are important and good.”
Dr. Jack Caton, chair, EIOH Periodontics Department, has worked with Clare for 45 years and considers her a friend. “She always has time for me and my problems and usually has a solution,” he said. “She has been a great asset in our efforts to raise the level of dentistry in the community and within the institution.”
“On a personal note,” Holly continued, “not only is Clare caring, compassionate and a friend to all, but she is genuinely a wonderful human being with a huge heart. She has been a wonderful mentor to me over the years. Her enthusiasm, tenacity, and willingness to roll up her sleeves to get the job done make her a role model for all. She would consistently strive for excellence, irrespective of having to commit countless hours of overtime in the evenings and weekends to get the job done.”
For now, retirement will be what Clare does best…helping others. She wants to continue serving the community through teaching, such as she did with the UR Rochester Scholars program that EIOH has hosted each year showing high school students what careers in dentistry are like through hands-on activities.
“In addition to her loyalty and conscientious devotion to EIOH,” added Dr. Billings, “not many are aware that Clare also commits tirelessly to her immediate and extended family in Seneca Falls and elsewhere around the globe, and that she has long served as a volunteer for many community organizations and community outreach activities.”
“I love to travel and would like to see the other Eastmans and the dental museum in Maryland,” she added, in addition to caring for her 93-year old mother. “Many of the residents have invited me to visit their home countries to give guest lectures, which I would enjoy very much.”
As her amazing 50-year career at Eastman comes to a close, Clare’s next chapter will fan the flame to keep learning. “If you don’t keep learning, you stop, and I plan to keep learning as long as I can.”