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Follow-up on dental reconstruction reveals the importance of a healthy smile Date: 02/13/14

Marc Ramirez
Marc Ramirez

By Mary Otto

Marc Ramirez of The Dallas Morning News recently offered readers an update on a story he began to write more than two years ago.

Robina Rayamajhi, a legally blind college student, had not let her visual disability stop her from excelling at the University of North Texas and setting her hopes on a law degree. Yet her crooked teeth were having an impact on her self-confidence. When a group of caring health care professionals from the community joined forces to help her, Ramirez documented the transformation of Robina’s smile.

Here, Ramirez shares some thoughts on how he embarked upon the story and how he developed it. He also offers some good advice to other reporters who might find themselves revisiting a story over time.

Q: First, how did you first find out about Robina Rayamajhi?

A: I got an email from Mary Ann Siller, who advocates for the visually impaired community around the Dallas area. She had met Robina through some of her efforts and, made aware of her situation, introduced Robina to her acquaintance, dentist Phil Kozlow. Mary Ann guessed, correctly, that Robina’s story might be worth sharing with our readers.

Q: You mention she was shy about her teeth. Did you have any trouble convincing her to open up to you and allow you to write about her case?

A: I visited with Robina and her father at her dorm at the University of North Texas. She was not reluctant to talk with me, but did seem shy about smiling much.

Q: In your first story you wrote: “Smiles are the green lights of human interaction. They lift moods, enhance beauty, indicate approachability.” And you called a local business school professor to talk about the importance of non-verbal communication. Did your reporting give you some new insights into the importance of a smile?

A: In a way, yes. I mean, it’s something we all inherently know, right? We just don’t necessarily put it into words. But one thing I try to do with my stories is to put them into some sort of context so they’re part of a bigger picture, or to highlight the element of the story that really gets to the heart of what makes it worth telling, and in this case it was that: the importance of a smile for all of us and why it was so crucial for Robina to have this reconstruction done.

Q:Did Drs Kozlow and Gupta tell you any more about Robina’s severe dental problems? It sounds like beyond the cosmetic concerns, her teeth were having an impact on her health as well.

A: It was a situation that would become more problematic as she got older. Left as is, her teeth would become harder and harder to clean, which would increase the chance of infection. Properly chewing food would have been a problem, which could then lead to digestive issues.

Q: Looking back to when you first met Robina, do you think she has become more outgoing and confident? Has she told you any stories about the changes in her life you haven’t had room to include in your coverage?

A: She definitely has. She was pretty outgoing to begin with, but the dental improvements have freed her to express herself more fully. She’s obviously accomplished a lot academically and is still set on becoming a lawyer, so I think she’s very confident about that moving forward. She’s a stylish dresser, too. And the last time I spoke with her she was about to celebrate her 21st birthday by going to Austin with friends, so she’s developed a healthy, traditional social circle for a typical college student rather than feeling like being a recluse.

Q: You mentioned that Dr. Kozlow had helped start a dental assistance program for low-income adults through a local ministry organization. Can you tell us a little more about that? I believe Medicaid dental benefits for adults in Texas, as in many other states, are extremely limited. Does the ministry program fill a unique need in the area?

A: Dr. Kozlow launched the Adult Dental Clinic through an organization called North Dallas Shared Ministries. The clinic does serve a need that isn’t being fully met otherwise and now partners with the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry to offer its services five days a week. Last year the clinic helped more than 300 people with cleanings, fillings, extraction and other services.

Q: Do you plan on writing about Robina again?

A:Robina is so close to having her reconstructive work completed that I’m not sure there would be enough new information to do another story at this point. What I’ll likely do is write a blog post updating readers once that reconstruction is done that refers them back to the first two stories. What might be nice is to follow up with Robina in a few years when she’ll presumably be in law school and see what life is like for her then.

Q: Any wisdom to share with other reporters who might tackle a story like this that unfolds over time?

A: It helps to have some sort of filing system, whether through saved emails or online documents or physical folders, for sources or stories that are worth following up on from time to time. We’re all facing the regular ongoing demands of breaking news and enterprise stories, but when those moments pop up where we’ve got time to breathe and look ahead, those files are worth reviewing to see what might be worth a new look. And obviously if you know there might be a milestone or new angle down the road and the approximate date, you put a reminder in your calendar. When you know a story like this will develop over time, it’s also useful to let your sources know that they shouldn’t be shy about contacting you again with new developments. In this case, Mary Ann Siller, who had originally told me about Robina, followed up to let me know the reconstructive work was nearly done – not only because of how Robina’s teeth had improved but because of the changes she’d seen in Robina’s personality. And that became the new angle I built my follow-up story around.