Tens of thousands of Hmong-Minnesotans can smile with pride when they mention their dentist’s name, “Pog Thaib” (translated to, “The Thai Lady”).
For over 26 years, Dr. Vacharee Sriswad Peterson has been on both a personal and a spiritual quest to fix, clean and repair all types of teeth—whether poor, rich, white, yellow, brown or black.
It just so happened that Hmong patients were some of her first clientele and through the years have grown to comprise an estimated 60% of the clients who continue to visit her and the non-profit dental clinic that she heads, Community Dental Care (formerly Peterson & Peterson Family Dentistry).
While many may know the clinic’s longstanding location located at Arcade Street on the East Side of St. Paul, Community Dental Care has recently expanded into Maplewood after acquiring and renovating the gigantic, nearly 40,000sq ft., building which once housed the Ramsey County Library in Maplewood.
Speaking bashfully about her success, Dr. Peterson shrugs her shoulders to reveal that if she hadn’t become a dentist, she figures that she would have entered into the missionary.
“I never sought to end up in this type of building. All I wanted was to serve people and eat noodle with God.”
It was through sheer determination and faith—and a chance encounter with newly arrived Hmong and Lao refugees back in 1981, that would put her on the path to being a “missionary” for thousands and thousands of underprivileged teeth.
After graduating from Bethel College in 1973, Dr. Peterson eventually found herself in dental school at the University of Minnesota. Her career choice, however, was not an easy path for her to take at the time.
“Fifteen dentists looked at me and each gave me no chance at success, telling me that I would go bankrupt as a dentist,” Dr. Peterson recalls from the early days of her practice. “Even the guy who I hired to make our first sign told me that he was wasting his time to make the sign.”
It was unheard of at the time for an immigrant woman to become a dentist in Minnesota.
Through her continued faith in God and in herself, Dr. Peterson persisted through all the negativity that she faced.
“My principle was to serve God, not those people who discouraged me.”
In a stroke of fate, she met the Hmong people, who at that time were starting to move into the Twin Cities in greater and greater numbers.
Looking back at it now, Dr. Peterson realizes it must have been a match made in heaven.
“At that time, hardly any dentist would deal with clients who paid with Medical Assistance,” Dr. Peterson recalls. “And since I gladly accepted clients of all kinds and could also communicate with these new refugees through speaking Thai, the word spread throughout the Twin Cities that I would care for their teeth.”
And the rest, as they say, is history! Dr. Peterson has personally seen up to three generations of Hmong and Lao clients throughout the years and feels proud to have retained most of her original clients and their growing families.
With her diverse clientele, Dr. Peterson has made sure to employ a staff that reflects this diversity.
Phillip Yang, a scheduler and a marketing manager at Community Dental Care, estimates that more than half the staff are Hmong.
“You could say Dr. Peterson hasn’t forgotten her roots,” Yang jokes. “Which is good because it means that I get to keep my job!”
Despite her busy schedule with her administration work, Dr. Peterson continues to actively practice dentistry, mostly at her Maplewood location.
The reason she and her husband decided to transform their private practice into a non-profit organization was to ensure that the underprivileged people of the Twin Cities would have adequate dental care. As a non-profit, they could also concentrate more on education and the social services side of dentistry.
“We find that there continues to be a disproportionate number of poor people with bad teeth,” Dr. Peterson summarizes. “And most of this can be prevented with the proper education and care.”
Nearing her retirement, Dr. Peterson feels confident that Community Dental Care will be able to continue the legacy of dental care that she has worked her entire life to fulfill.
“I feel very privileged and blessed to do the work I do,” Dr. Peterson is proud to say.
Community Dental Care is located at 1670 Beam Avenue
Maplewood, MN 55109
Clinic Hours: Monday-Friday: 7:30 AM – 9:30 PM
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