Class of ’24: Dental grad says faith, ‘random angels’ led her way

Class of ’24: Dental grad says faith, ‘random angels’ led her way

Eight people, posing for a photo and smiling and some holding up peace signs, stand outside in front of a building.

Each year, University of Detroit Mercy’s Marketing & Communications department profiles members of the graduating classes. Students chosen were nominated by staff and faculty for their contributions to the life of the University. Click here for more information about 2024 commencement exercises.

Maria Latorre Sanchez came to Detroit to follow her dream of becoming a dentist. In addition, she found a close-knit community that supported her during the hardest time of her life and helped her to dream bigger.

Latorre Sanchez earned an undergraduate degree in Florida before applying to dental schools. She didn’t know much about Detroit or Detroit Mercy’s School of Dentistry, but the word from friends was positive and a visit here in which current dental students meet potential students helped her make Detroit Mercy her top choice.

Maria Latorre SanchezShe threw herself into her studies and all the extracurriculars that come with Detroit Mercy Dental. She was a member of the Student-Alumni Leadership Council, attended symposia and volunteered with community service. A native of Colombia, Latorre Sanchez has been president of the Hispanic Dental Student Association since 2021 and she directed her outreach through the Ford Community Corps and Student Leadership program on helping the local Hispanic population. She was an ambassador with La Casa Guadalupana, working to reduce language barriers to dental patients.

In her third year, which is when students begin working with patients in the clinic, Latorre Sanchez brought her father from Colombia to the school.

“I wanted to work on my father,” she said. “My family didn’t have a lot of dental care and he had lost most of his teeth. I wanted to be the one to fit him with dentures.”

While visiting Detroit to start the treatment, he told his daughter he was not feeling himself. He was dealing with depression that was brought on and exacerbated by early stages of dementia. She turned to faculty members for advice. Eventually she had to ask her brother to move in with their father, which he willingly did.

“He was the best dad, and my brother was the best son and brother,” she said.

One day, she received a call from her mother, who lived in Florida. She was worried because she hadn’t heard from Latorre Sanchez’s father or brother and could not reach them by phone.

Agonizing hours trying to reach them ended with her aunt breaking into his house in Colombia and finding both dead.

“I left school immediately,” she remembered. “It was terrible, terrible.”

When Latorre Sanchez returned to school two weeks later, she said she was greeted with “the biggest support system ever.”

Faculty and staff would collect her when they found her alone, sobbing, and take her to their offices where they would let her cry or talk or just sit there. They helped her understand the disease of depression. One emailed her a prayer every day.

“My classmates did not leave me for a minute. They guided me through this time, took me to Mass, helped me with the work I missed,” she said. “This went on for a long time.”

And God was watching out for her, she says. “God took my father and brother at this time and only God knows why. But there were random angels all around who helped me out.”

Slowly, through her faith, studies and Detroit Mercy Dental support system, the grief became less raw. She found that she felt great joy helping patients in clinic by fitting them with dentures.

“When you tell a patient they are going to lose all their teeth, it’s like grief,” she said. “They feel they are losing something of themselves. But when you fit them with dentures, they have this smile that is so rewarding. I was never able to provide the dentures for my dad, but I am able to help others.”

A dental student wearing a mask and helmet talks to a patient laying in a medical chair inside of a room.Detroit Mercy provided Latorre Sanchez an opportunity to help the local Hispanic community even more when a faculty member asked her if she would help create a dental clinic at the St. Francis Cabrini Clinic. She jumped at the chance to help the mostly Hispanic patients who would come to the clinic for other healthcare needs.

“They knew that is what I love, so I said yes,” she said.

The logistics of starting a clinic from scratch are daunting, but with help from faculty and lots of volunteers, it opened in 2022. They offered cleanings, extractions and fillings one Saturday a month. Bigger issues would be referred to the Dental Clinic. It has expanded its hours since.

She created a pamphlet so English-speaking dental students learned enough words to conduct a thorough exam with a Spanish-only speaking patient.

“It’s important that both the patients and the clinicians feel comfortable,” she said.

The new graduate is not done with Detroit Mercy Dental yet, though. She is thrilled to have received a three-year periodontal residency. She jokes: “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

That Latorre Sanchez is able to laugh after such a tragedy she credits to her faith. She shares her story because she hopes other people draw strength from her.

“I see people who get very upset that they didn’t pass a test or something like that and I hope that if telling my story helps others understand that they can get through bad times,” Latorre Sanchez said. “It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how fast you get up.”

— By Ron Bernas. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.