Dr. Christy Kopasz recently accepted a full-time position performing dentistry in the nonprofit Utah Navajo Health System where she's been employed for the past 4 1/2 years. (Courtesy photo)

Christy Kopasz has always thought that, “dentistry was the coolest thing on earth.” She wasted no time pursuing what is as much a passion as it is a profession. That passion has led her to the nonprofit Utah Navajo Health System where she brings her skills to underserved patients. She leaves Telluride Dentistry next week.

Kopasz’ journey began when she was in her teens. Upon graduating from high school a semester early in Aurora, Colorado, Kopasz landed a job at a pediatric dental office, sterilizing instruments and developing x-rays. She then earned a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from the University of Colorado where Dr. Terry Brown, a dentist in Telluride, was advertising to hire a dental hygienist. Kopasz took the job and moved to Telluride in January of 1995 and worked in Brown’s practice for the next 16 years.

“I liked the technical skills of being a hygienist but I really cared most about my patients and their health,” explained Kopasz. “As a hygienist, you’re with a patient for an hour. I loved educating patients, helping to turn them around. As a dentist, you don’t see patients as regularly. Now I may only see a patient for five minutes for an exam or when I need to do a filling.”

Brown, now retired, said Kopasz brought a high degree of clinical skill to her position as a hygienist.

“The true professional that she was, Christy continuously worked at expanding her knowledge and clinical skills,” he said.

These were the years when Kopasz’s interest in public medicine was seeded. She regularly volunteered her skills as a dental hygienist to underserved communities including a working dental trip she took to Nepal and summer stints working in the migrant health program.

“I don’t know what it is about volunteering to work with people who need help more than others. It just feels good,” she said.

Commuting to Durango to earn pre-requisites for dental school at Fort Lewis College, Kopasz joined the school’s bike racing team, which made it to nationals the same year. She gave birth to her son in 2008 while continuing to work in Brown’s dental practice until she went to dental school in 2011.

“I was not at all surprised when Christy decided to pursue a dental degree,” said Brown. “She was passionate about her profession.”

As a dentist, Kopasz prefers restorative dentistry — fixing peoples’ teeth — to aesthetic dentistry.

“Dentistry overall is a lot more challenging than I’d ever imagined,” she admitted. “It’s life-long learning.”

While in dental school, Kopasz worked an Indian Health Service externship in Tacoma, Washington, on the Puyallup Indian Reservation. In 2016, she joined Dr. Ryan Grady’s dental practice in Telluride where she demonstrated what Grady calls a “comprehensive approach to dentistry” in her thorough diagnostics, her willingness to learn and her dedication to continuing education.

“Her connection with her patients was remarkable,” Grady said. “The patients she had loved and respected her. The rapport she had with her patients was like no other.”

Recently, Kopasz accepted a full-time position performing dentistry in the non-profit Utah Navajo Health System where she's been employed for the past 4 1/2 years.

In recent years, Kopasz has pursued opportunities to work as a contract dentist with neighboring Native American populations addressing a wide spectrum of dental afflictions including tooth decay, infection and loss in patients who typically can’t afford dental work.  

“It’s the type of dentistry I love,” she said. “These people have really bad teeth and they really need help. Navajo children have the highest rate of cavities in the nation. The people down there are so amazing. The language is really technical and beautiful and they still keep an amazing culture. They’re very special, traditional people.”

The residents she serves face challenges even getting to a clinic given that many of them live remotely across the reservation.

“So we recently got a dental van and eventually we’re going to start trying to go to the chapter houses to provide remote dental care,” Kopasz explained.

While she still lives in Rico with her son, Kopasz will commute to the Utah clinic for several days at a time where her company will provide a house that she’ll share with another doctor. She intends to remain in public medicine forever.

“Dr. Kopasz thrives on helping others no matter the cost,” said Grady. “I’ve known for years that public health is where she’d finally settle. I could see the dedication in her each day when she’d tell me stories from the clinics where she was working. She is a true servant to her patients and her move to full-time in public health is the right one for her, her patients and her family.”

Kopsasz’s last day working in Telluride is Thursday, Dec. 9.

“It was so hard to make the decision to leave Dr. Grady’s office because my patients mean the world to me but my heart is in public health,” she said. “It’s hard because you want to go down and change the world, but you can’t. You do what you can though, and this is a dream come true for me.”