Dr. Darlene Sorrell of Rio Rancho was recognized as a 2023 Health Equity Hero for her efforts to improve oral health for American Indian communities.

DentaQuest, part of Sun Life U.S., gave the award to Sorrell, the first dentist from the Navajo nation, for her volunteer work at Nizhóní Smiles in Shiprock. DentaQuest is making a $5,000 donation in Sorrell’s name to a charity of her choosing.

Now in its ninth year, the DentaQuest Health Equity Heroes program honors individuals and organizations responsible for  work that advances equitable access to health care including medical, oral and  behavioral health, and thus optimal overall health.

“The pandemic and its aftermath exacerbated the major gaps in health care across the country, making access and affordability more difficult than ever,” said Steve Pollock, president at DentaQuest. “This year’s Health Equity Heroes are truly health connectors, bridging these gaps, positively impacting their communities and making real change from the ground up. We are proud to recognize these individuals as heroes and celebrate their efforts and accomplishments improving oral and overall health for all.”

Sorrell, one of 12 Health Equity Heroes across the nation, been impacting the lives of American Indian/Alaska Native individuals for nearly 40 years. She is being honored for her dedication to providing equitable access to oral health care to the Navajo people.

“Being recognized by DentaQuest as a Health Equity Hero is an honor and illustrates how our hard work is helping Nizhóní Smiles and the community they serve,” Sorrell said. “I am humbled and privileged to work with such amazing individuals who are helping to make a difference in the community.”

Sorrell is a co-founder of the Society for American Indian Dentists. During her 38-year career, Sorrell provided care with the Indian Health Service. She now works with the Navajo Nation’s only nonprofit dental clinic, Nizhóní Smiles. Dental disease incidence among Navajos is triple the rate of the general population. As president of the clinic’s board, Sorrell collaborates with former colleagues and friends to grow staff and career opportunities at the clinic with initiatives such as an on-the-job dental assistant training program, plus mentorship and shadowing. Sorrell’s Health Equity Hero donation will be used to support Nizhóní Smiles.

“Seeing the same disease rate year after year over a 38-year career as a dentist always struck me profoundly,” Sorrell said. “I knew in retirement I wanted to truly empower the community to learn to teach themselves about dental disease. I also want to plant the seed to inspire a career in dentistry, to continue having an impact of the next generation of American Indian/Alaska Native dentists. You have to think outside the box. My open door for those interested has led to several current mentees from the Navajo Nation who may someday become dental professionals right here.”