Behind the Smile returns for storytelling in dentistry

By Rhonda Whitmeyer, School of Dentistry
March 15, 2019

“Behind the Smile,” a health care storytelling event, returns to UTHealth School of Dentistry at Houston this spring with a program of 10 speakers sharing four-minute stories about experiences they’ve had, either as patients, students, faculty or as practicing dentists or dental hygienists.

The program is set for Wednesday, March 6 in the Denton A. Cooley, MD and Ralph C. Cooley, DDS University Life Center, 7440 Cambridge St. in Houston. Doors will open at 5:45 p.m., with the program beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at

In connection with the event, the National Academy of Medicine’s traveling art exhibit, “Expressions of Clinician Well-Being,” will be on display at UTHealth March 6-8.

“Behind the Smile” debuted at UTHealth in November 2018, and the spring presentation will follow the same format, with different speakers but the same theme: sharing the human experience through storytelling.

The fall program drew a crowd that far exceeded the expectations of its organizers, School of Dentistry Associate Professor Shalizeh “Shelly” Patel, DDS, and fourth-year dental student Whitney Vrazel.

“We would’ve been relieved if 30 people showed up, so this is great,” Vrazel told the audience in November. “Storytelling is something we do every day. It’s human nature; we want to be heard, and in listening, we learn to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Patel and Vrazel separately became interested in storytelling.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, sparked Patel’s interest when she heard him speak at a National Academy of Medicine event in Washington, D.C. She was there with Anacristina Chapa, a UTHealth dental student whose video on clinician burnout won recognition from the academy. Murthy was the keynote speaker.

As attending physician at Yale, he made rounds regularly with residents, medical students and faculty, but one day came to realize that he really didn’t know any of them and they didn’t know him, Patel recalled. “So he decided that on Fridays, instead of talking about patients, they would talk to each other. They would tell stories about themselves.”

Over time, members of the group grew closer, and the way they treated patients and worked together improved. “It was the power of storytelling,” Patel said, “and I knew I wanted to do that with my students.”

Vrazel was interested in storytelling as a potential project for a clinical humanities course she was taking at McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics. “The heart of my experience there has been to think about ways we can increase empathy and practitioner awareness of ethical decisions,” she said. “Storytelling came into it because it’s one of the oldest things we do — sharing our stories with each other.”

After a dental student who knew them both suggested they team up, Vrazel and Patel wrote a proposal and presented it to Dean John Valenza, DDS, who gave them his full support and assistance from the School of Dentistry’s PACE Center.

In this way, “Behind the Smile: Stories in and out of dentistry” came to life.

Patel and Vrazel were amazed by the response from students, faculty and staff. “We weren’t really expecting too many stories, but we ended up with more than we could fit into the program,” Patel said. “We didn’t turn any away, but we did defer some to March.”

They’re now accepting stories for the March event. Send entries to by Friday, Feb. 15.

All stories should be short and true, but they can be funny, poignant, nostalgic, cautionary, ironic or otherwise engaging. Designated readers are available for those who want to remain anonymous. Vrazel describes the format as similar to a TED talk, but shorter.

Although some medical schools have embraced storytelling as a tool for mental health awareness, she and Patel believe UTHealth School of Dentistry at Houston is the first dental school to do so.

“There’s a need for this,” Patel said. “Life gets hard, life gets busy, you’re always trying to get things done, and while we interact as professionals, it’s always at a superficial level. Based on how many entries we got and on how many people have talked to me about this project, there’s a need to connect at a deeper level.”

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