VCU business grad steps in to develop modified face shields for dental students

The face shields, created by Larkin Garbee and her team at Good Work Society, helped the School of Dentistry reopen safely this summer.

A person wearing a mask and face shield with a V C U sweatshirt performs dental work on a trainin...
A graduate of the School of Business and her team at Good Work Society created a custom face shield this summer that sped up the School of Dentistry's ability to reopen safely. (VCU School of Dentistry)

Completing dental skills assessments is a vital step in the process of becoming a dentist, and doing so in person is essential to allowing dental students to graduate on time. But when it came time for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry to bring students back to campus after it shut down in March because of COVID-19, the school encountered a problem: The regular face shields didn’t work because of the magnification glasses and headlamps dentists need to wear when working with patients. 

“The face shields we had rest against your forehead, but they would bang into the headlamp and glasses,” said David Sarrett, D.M.D., dean of the School of Dentistry. 

A person wearing a face shield, protective mask, and a pair of microscopic eyeglasses.
Regular face shields often don't provide enough room for magnification glasses and headlamps dentists need to wear when working with patients. The modified shields from Good Work Society are made with extra room for that equipment. (Courtesy of Richard Archer)

Because COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, or aerosols, exhaled through the nose and mouth, face shields are necessary for the safety of everyone in a dental clinic — patients, dentists and, in the case of a dental school, students.

To find a solution, the School of Dentistry enlisted the help of the Health Innovation Consortium, which partners with Richmond’s entrepreneurs to solve health care challenges. The consortium put the school in touch with Larkin Garbee and her team at Good Work Society, an online community for businesses, remote teams, freelancers and transitioning employees.

“We have a longstanding relationship working with VCU, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Garbee, a 2005 graduate of the VCU School of Business. “The School of Dentistry wanted to bring students back in and needed a solution they couldn’t find in the marketplace.”

Garbee and volunteer Jean-Etienne LaVallee worked to create a prototype for a face shield. They showed the school three off-the-shelf models from which to choose. 

“They chose one and then we modified it to make sure the dental [magnifying glasses] would fit under the shield,” Garbee said. “We also redesigned it to have a more comfortable head strap that also stabilized the shield.” 

Garbee worked with a local consumer packaging company that cut the shield to the modified specifications. 

“We designed the head straps and assembled the shields in-house, working with 30 volunteers in our community. We made 6,000 shields,” she said, adding that VCU had an initial order of 1,000 and a reorder of 500. “It was fun to go back when they reordered and see the students wearing the shields that we created. It was exciting to see Good Work in play.” 

Students first used the face shields from Good Work Society on June 15. The face shields “got us open and going again,” said Richard Archer, D.D.S., associate dean of clinical education in the School of Dentistry. “If we had not gotten this, we would have had to look elsewhere. There were other face shield sources available, but this is the one that fit our needs right away.”

“Good Work Society’s design absolutely helped us open early,” Sarrett said. 

If Larkin had not developed this thing, we would have had a hard time building back up.

Today, students are participating in comprehensive, nonemergency patient care, emergency patient care, classroom and seminar learning, and simulation clinic learning. This is significant, Sarrett said, because only 44% of dental schools have students participating at or near this level, according to a recent informal American Dental Education Association poll of deans at dental schools nationwide.

The VCU School of Dentistry is still using some of the face shields provided by Good Work in tandem with masks from other suppliers.

“If Larkin [Garbee] had not developed this thing, we would have had a hard time building back up,” Sarrett said. “What has happened now is the market has caught up a bit and there are other designs.”

Working with a local nonprofit was definitely an advantage, Archer said. 

“We were able to give them feedback, and they delivered the face shields to us. That was the one piece I don’t think we would have been able to get from a major dental company,” Archer said. “Working with Larkin [Garbee] and Jean-Etienne [LaVallee] was always easy. They went out of their way to fill our need.”

Garbee appreciates the way people came together to share information and collaborate on the project. 

“It gave people a purpose and a reason to show up,” she said. “It was a way to be productive and useful to the community.”

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