Leading amid a pandemic

Lessons learned by alumni navigating the highs and lows of leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

Photo of a woman dentist hugging a small, smiling child, who is holding a mold of teeth
Kari Cunningham, DMD (pictured here with her niece), owns Panther Pediatric Dentistry in Euclid, Ohio.

Kari Cunningham, DMD (DEN ‘10, ‘12), has a healthy sense of humor looking back on what she calls her “pandemic presidency” of the Greater Cleveland Dental Society. She came into the role during a time filled with uncertainty, yet was able to make significant contributions during her one-year term.

“Patience is truly a virtue,” Cunningham said with a laugh, as she reflected on the weighty responsibility of disseminating ever-changing safety guidelines to society members. “And you have to stay flexible.”

Alex Mellion, DMD (DEN ‘11), who served a one-year term as president of the Akron Dental Society beginning in May 2020, shared a similar sentiment.

Zachary, Joseph and Alex Million pose outdoors
Alex Mellion, DMD (pictured at right) is part of the Akron, Ohio-based family practice Mellion Orthodontics with his brother Zachary Mellion, DMD (DEN ‘04), and father, Joseph Mellion, DDS (DEN ‘78).

“The most important thing was just to keep [the society] going,” said Mellion. “What I learned immediately and still take away from the experience was the need to change quickly and adapt easily. We learned to be more resilient.”

Empathy also proved to be a crucial tool. “I had to furlough employees at my practice for a period of time, and many people had to leave the workforce as they took on the role of teacher or suddenly became the main care provider for their children,” said Cunningham. “Being understanding, compassionate and flexible in that regard was huge when people came to me as a leader of the dental society, as well as a business owner.”

During a typical year, a local dental society arranges continuing education programs and speaker series to keep members informed of the latest trends in the field. The gatherings became more vital than ever while navigating COVID-19. 

“Our meetings provided an opportunity for people to ask questions, a time to share what was going on in our practices, and they just gave a sense of camaraderie,” reflected Mellion.

That camaraderie was critical to enduring months of isolation throughout 2020. Emotions were high as people dealt with depression, the loss of loved ones, and the wave of civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.

“I am the first Black woman to serve as president of the Greater Cleveland Dental Society, and I took that to heart,” Cunningham shared. “I would be remiss not to acknowledge the impact of this event on my patients, my colleagues, and our community.”

Cunningham was thankful to have colleagues in her corner, and together they established a group within the society called TEAM DDS, which stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More, Diversity in Dentistry Subcommittee.” The group obtained grant funding and plans to host its first Diversity and Inclusion Dinner this fall. The event will feature a speaker who will discuss diversity in organized dentistry leadership and the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in U.S. dental schools.

“We need to learn how we, as a dental community, can mentor and support young kids through the education pipeline so that they can ultimately join us in this profession as colleagues one day,” Cunningham said. “We are more than oral health care practitioners. We are leaders in our community.”