Published February 22. 2013 10:00AM Updated February 22. 2013 10:56AM
For Hillary Mendillo, the path to becoming a dentist and joining her dad’s Branford practice wasn’t exactly a straight shot. In fact, she was bound for a career in environmental science, when a trip to a third-world island nation changed her mind.
The Branford High School (BHS) Class of ’98 alumnae (and BHS field hockey captain who founded the annual alumni game) received her undergraduate degree from University of Pennsylvania and took an exciting job with Sea Education Association (SEA) as a shipboard engineer and educator on a 135-foot SEA sailing vessel.
Hillary’s SEA adventures took her to both Atlantic and Pacific locales during six-week trips. But it was her Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea travels that inspired her to follow her dad into dentistry.
“When we traveled to poor island nations, I was really aware of the dental disease there, because I grew up looking at smiles,” says Hillary.
Her father, James, started Mendillo Family Dentistry in Branford more than 35 years ago. Hillary’s mom Roberta is the practice’s dental hygienist. The youngest of three Mendillo daughters, Hillary comes from a line of health professionals including having doctors for grandfathers, nurses on her mom’s side, and a great-grandfather, on her dad’s side, who was a dentist.
Although she grew up around dentistry, Hillary says, “I didn’t know I wanted to be a dentist! When I was an undergraduate, I was adamant that I was not going into health.”
But even with her environmental science undergraduate degree and many months of SEA work to her credit, what Hillary always seemed most eager to discuss with her parents was how to fix the problem of dental disease she saw in poor island communities.
“It was breaking my heart,” says Hillary. “My mom encouraged me to go back to school to become a dentist.”
Hillary first took up an offer from her dad to assist him and gain exposure to what could become her chosen field.
“It was supposed to be for one day, but as soon as I did it, I said, ‘I’ll work with you full time—I love it,’” recalls Hillary.
She graduated from University of Michigan School of Dentistry in May 2012, and returned home to Branford to join Mendillo Family Dentistry. To keep her sea legs, Hillary also joined Branford Yacht Club. She spent last summer sailing competitively on the J30 Magan.
As for finding a way to help underserved populations find proper dental care, Hillary’s gaining ground toward the goal. At University of Michigan, one of the programs Hillary became very familiar with was the American Dental Association’s annual Give Kids a Smile clinic, where professionals team with dental students to assist youths from families in need.
“Out at the University of Michigan, we ran a clinic every year. My dad and I talked about it, because he was involved with the [University of New Haven] clinic here,” says Hillary.
This year, Mendillo Family Dentistry, led by Dr. Jim Mendillo and Dr. Hillary Mendillo, offered its first Give Kids a Smile free clinic. The Feb. 6 program gave free care to youths from families in need, coordinated through Branford Counseling Center.
Mendillo Family Dentistry saw nine young people, ranging in ages from four to 20, and provided $3,643 in free dental care including nine cleanings, nine exams, seven bite wing X-rays, two panoramic X-rays, eight fluoride treatments, 20 sealants (including six to be done at a later date), and one filling.
“We plan to do the event again next year, and have discussed different ways of structuring the event so more kids can make it,” says Hillary
She’s also excited about another way to help, through Branford Cares. Hillary, her dad, and some other local dentists recently sat in on a Branford Cares initiative meeting.
“We’re seeking ways to not only meet the dental needs of the under-served children in our community, but the adults as well. While no one has the answer just yet, it is exciting to discuss the topic in an attempt to find a feasible solution to this growing need,” says Hillary.