Darlene Sorrell

Providing Excellent Services Despite Odds

Dr. Sorrell 062 Darlene Sorrell, Navajo, DMD, has been serving as the Director of Clinical Services at the Albuquerque Indian Health Service Dental Program since 1994. More than 40 hours each week, she cares for patients at this urban clinic. In addition, she has administrative and leadership responsibilities that have included keeping the clinic alive. In 2002 when the service unit’s dental funding was distributed to surrounding tribal groups that chose to manage their dental program funds, the lack of federal funding for urban dental and medical centers became dramatically clear. Sorrell says, “Our options were to close or get very creative.” Sorrell and her colleagues were creative and found ways to support and even grow their program so that now it serves even more people, and it is minimally dependent on the federal government.

The Love of Hands-on Work

Sorrell remembers always wanting to be a dentist. “I liked the idea of using my hands to help provide needed dental care not only on the reservation but across the country.” Sorrell never talked with her high school counselor about her careers plans because she had heard many stories of counselors who discouraged American Indian students from entering the health professions. “Instead, I went to the University of Arizona at Tucson for my undergraduate work and started figuring it out from there, “ she explains.

Sorrell’s first real exposure to dentistry was during two summers and Christmases at
Tuba City Dental Clinic. There, as part of a program sponsored by the Navajo Health Authority, she assisted with some dental procedures and with the fluoride program.

Lacking confidence that she would get into dental school on her first try, Sorrell did her undergraduate degree in medical technology, planning to work as a medical technologist until getting into dental school. However, the School of Dentistry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland Oregon accepted her immediately.

Sorrell found that the coursework was challenging. However, facing cultural issues, balancing two worlds, and relating to students from educated, economically well-off families was even more challenging. “Navajos believe that you’re not supposed to dissect the human body – the cadaver. Four of us were assigned to work with each cadaver. I tried to stay away from touching the cadaver but that wasn’t possible. Most of the tests and quizzes were on the body so I couldn’t just study out of the book. I had to tell my parents what I was up against. They told me what I needed to do. After I passed the course, I had a traditional ceremony to put me back in harmony with my surroundings. In Oregon there was nobody around to talk with about this. I didn’t think the students would understand.”

“In the 1970s and 1980s, these kinds of challenges were not uncommon for American Indian students,” says Sorrell. Today the number of American Indian dental students has increased. Hopefully, this is resulting in more peer and faculty support and understanding.”

While getting her own education, Sorrell helped prepare other American Indian students for higher education. The summer before dental school, she lived in the dorm at Navajo Community College (now known as
Diné College) where she served as a tutor and counselor for 25 Navajo high school juniors. The summer following her first year in dental school, Sorrell was a peer counselor for high school students in the Hopi Health Manpower program. Later, she tutored 25 American Indian students as part of a Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board program.

Prevention Work

After completing her second year of dental school, Sorrell enhanced her skills the next two summers as a COSTEP student (Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program) at the Tuba City Dental Clinic. When she graduated from dental school, Sorrell entered the IHS and went to Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation where she supervised two staff dentists and four dental auxiliaries at the Keams Canyon Dental Clinic. “We had a strong prevention program and implemented an effective sealant program in seven grade schools throughout the Hopi Reservation,” she remembers.

Three years later Sorrell became Chief of the Juneau Dental Program at the
Southeast Alaska Regional Health Corporation. This comprehensive program, with its strong prevention component, served Juneau and the village of Hoonah. Then, as an IHS advanced general practice resident, Sorrell moved to the Alaska Native Medical Center where she had to travel by small plane to remote Alaskan Native communities that lacked roads. Following her residency, Sorrell became an assistant area dental officer at the Alaska Dental Area Office in Anchorage.

Sorrell describes her time in Alaska as “exciting” and “adventurous”. Corporations in Alaska administer health care at the local level. Sorrell feels that working in this system helped prepare her for the current situation in which local tribes and pueblos are increasingly taking control of their own health care.

In 1994, with the more advanced skills that she had acquired in her residency program Sorrell was promoted to Chief, Complex Program, Service Unit Dental Program at
Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. This program, then the largest IHS dental program, provided preventive, rehabilitative, and urgent dental care to the approximately 30,000 American Indians who live in Albuquerque and the surrounding communities of Alamo, Isleta, Sandia, Santa Ana, Zia and Jemez. “I was attracted to coming here because I thought I could have a larger impact,” Sorrell explains.

Sorrell indeed has made an impact, improving the health and the lives of countless Indian people. In the future she hopes to become more involved with dental health care on the Navajo reservation. She also has ideas for some dental inventions that she hopes to develop and patent.


Sorrell recommends that students who are contemplating a career in dentistry connect with someone in the field and get exposure to dentistry. She herself has an open door policy for American Indian students who want to shadow her at her clinic. Students are also welcome to be volunteers, though that requires lengthy paperwork. Sorrell also recommends that students stay in touch with organizations such as the
Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID), that can provide them with information about relevant conferences, activities, and scholarships.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist, Buffalo Gouge, Creek and Cherokee, works with bright colors. Portraits are his main interest. For more information visit Art Exchange Galleries.)