Collage of map of Wisconsin, photo of Colleen Greene, photo of her family and photo of an oral model

While working to improve dental health care for the foster children of the greater Milwaukee area, Colleen Greene and her husband decided to welcome two foster children into their family.

Photos courtesy of Colleen Greene and from iStock


Bridging gaps

4 min read

“Everybody has opportunities to see a barrier, find the cause of it, and change it.”

Colleen Greene, M.P.H. ’13, D.M.D. ’13, uses the word “fun” a lot when talking about work.

A Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) graduate who also has a master’s degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Greene is given to saying things like: “It’s fun to work toward humanizing the concept of a dentist,” “What’s fun about advocacy is that you have to constantly step back and think through what isn’t working,” and “That there are ways to improve systems makes it super fun to continue chipping away at it.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that what Greene means by fun involves turning challenges into opportunities.

A first-generation college student from a lower-income household, Greene earned a bachelor’s degree from a small college in Kalamazoo, Mich., and planned a career in health care based on a chemistry teacher’s recommendation.

Midway through her time at HSDM, Greene became president of the American Student Dental Association and founding president of the Oral Health Progress and Equity Network — roles that allowed her to help educate other dental students about debt prevention and scholarship opportunities, and to push for inclusion and diversity in the American Dental Association. After dental school, Greene matched to a residency program at Children’s Wisconsin, where she saw another problem in search of a solution.

Greene and her husband Jon with their two children.

Photos courtesy of Colleen Greene

“Our clinic sees over half of all kids in Milwaukee County who are in foster care,” Greene said. “The world of foster care gets really complicated when it comes to health care consent. In dentistry, most kids under a certain age would benefit from using laughing gas when they get their dental care.” But in Wisconsin, laughing gas was classified as a specialized treatment. “We had to jump through hours’ worth of hoops per case to try and obtain appropriate written consent from the legal guardian.” A process that was made even more complicated when it was unclear whom the current guardian was.

So when a state task force on foster care reform reached out to her clinic looking for input, Greene wrote an impassioned letter to the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Health in support of a bill that would reclassify laughing gas. A few months later, the bill was passed.

“As small as it was, just changing the classification of laughing gas, from a specialized, additional benefit and instead considering it routine care, meant that we no longer had to have our residents and our staff go through tremendously unnecessary paperwork to just get kids the care they needed,” she said.

Working so closely with foster children yielded an additional benefit. “My husband and I became pretty curious about becoming foster parents. We took a leap of faith and applied in 2016, and our son was placed with us in 2017. [We adopted him] in May 2018, and a little girl was placed with us last December and [we adopted her] in October.”

While Greene has her hands even more full now, she has no plans to slow down.

“I’m having a lot of fun so far, and I have a feeling that there will be many years of work to do.”

This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.