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Uncommon Grace

In support of Dr. Grace Snuggs

Students, faculty and staff (plus two stuffed animals) gather near the former imaging center to pose for a photo in support of
Dr. Grace Snuggs, assistant professor in restorative sciences.

 Media Resources/Steven Doll

The story of one faculty member, her favorite color and the dental school that is reaching out to support one of its own — one purple wristband at a time.

For as long as she can remember, Dr. Grace Snuggs has loved purple. As a little girl at her childhood home in Panama City, she painted her room the color as soon as she was old enough. And it wasn’t just the walls — matching decorations dotted the space.

The color has been a part of nearly every major milestone in Snuggs’ life: At her 15th birthday, a coming-of-age celebration among Latin-American families, it accented all of her decor. When she graduated from dental school, family and friends dined on slices of purple cake. Even her wedding day was saturated in white, purple and lilac tones.

The hue is steeped in lore. In the Bible’s Old Testament, God instructed Moses to have the Israelites give offerings of purple yarn and fine linen to adorn the tabernacle. Like the color of the vestments worn by the clergy at Snuggs’ family’s church — All Saints Catholic in North Dallas — purple has long been associated with royalty and all that is sacred.

Snuggs doesn’t always choose to wear the color, but she’s recently added a new item to her collection: a soft purple blanket. It’s one she drapes over herself for several hours at a time. It comes in handy when she goes to Medical City Dallas Hospital every other week for chemotherapy.

It’s a part of her new reality, one that began in February with an unexpected diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. In the days and weeks that have followed, that favorite color of hers has taken on more meaning than she ever could have imagined.

Dr. Grace Snuggs and family
Snuggs with her husband, Jeff, and family

Photo by Stephen James

The color of dentistry

Snuggs, an assistant professor in restorative sciences since 2006, still remembers when Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry made the transition to latex-free gloves in clinic. She was so excited, since the gloves are purple. It’s not surprising, coming from a woman who — during her dental school years — gravitated toward purple accessory bags for her instruments and supplies. How appropriate then, that her chosen profession’s academic color is none other than a lilac purple.

The road to TAMBCD has not been a simple one. In 1997, fresh out of dental school in Panama City, Snuggs yearned to further her postdoctoral education in dentistry. But she knew the training she needed wasn’t to be found in her country.

“I didn’t speak English at the time so knew I had to learn the language first,” Snuggs says. “I knew it was really competitive.”

Dr. Grace Snuggs
Media Resources

Then came the hardest part. She packed her bags and moved thousands of miles from her family to a country she did not know — all for the profession she loved. After a stint in D.C., Snuggs had mastered the English language and gained acceptance into a general practice residency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where she later became chief resident during a subsequent Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency.

Her appreciation for dentistry and what it’s done in her life spills over onto everyone with whom she comes in contact, especially her students. Snuggs’ diagnosis may have taken her out of the clinic and off campus, but she is by no means distant.

In early April, students received an email from her encouraging them to apply to a new scholarship opportunity she found. It’s something she does regularly.

“She always wants to be there for us,” says D2 Mari Ramirez, fundraising chair for the college’s Hispanic Student Dental Association chapter, which Snuggs advises. “Even with her hectic schedule she tries to find ways to be there,” Ramirez says.

Whenever Snuggs’ mind is not on her children and husband, Jeff, the college is routinely at the top of her priority list.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in April when the phone rings in the Office of Advancement, Communications and Alumni Relations. Snuggs is on the line, and she has a question. Her mind is going 100 mph, and there is a lot to get done. She has another scheduled round of treatments in just two days, and she wants to address an item on her list of to-dos: how to get a Tooth Talk for special needs children videotaped and stored in the Baylor Health Sciences Library. Snuggs — whose 4-year-old son, Michael, has Down syndrome — is well versed in leading the presentations and wants to make sure an example is always available.

The color of awareness

A cancer diagnosis was completely unexpected for the mother of two, who sought medical attention for discomfort she associated with the birth of her daughter, Ana Grace, then just 6 months old. 

Snuggs’ situation is all too common among the more than 45,000 Americans diagnosed with the disease each year, as it often only causes vague symptoms like abdominal and back pain, and currently there are no detection tools to diagnose the cancer in its early stages.

But awareness begets medical advances, and medical advances increase survival. According to the National Cancer Institute, its funding for pancreatic cancer research increased from just $21 million in 2001 to $99.5 million in 2011. Even so, there is a lot of work to be done. As Snuggs and the TAMBCD community quickly learned, awareness efforts for pancreatic cancer are recognized by none other than the color purple.

“It was just ironic,” says Snuggs. “Purple is the color of dentistry, and it’s also my favorite color. It’s just crazy that the same color I enjoy is related to big issues right now with the cancer.”

The color of support

At noon on a Wednesday in April, more than 100 students, faculty and staff gather outside for a photo in support of Snuggs. They cluster on the grass next to the former imaging center, a giant mass of purple. At the same time less than 10 miles away, Snuggs reclines at Medical City for her fourth round of chemotherapy. Today she’s receiving a higher dose.

Just months before, when the TAMBCD community first learned of Snuggs’ diagnosis, the response was immediate. The very night news was received, one of Snuggs’ former students launched a Facebook support page, which quickly jumped to nearly 700 viewers.

Snuggs’ inner circle of friends at TAMBCD — Drs. Lee Steglich, Jon Clemetson and Khaldoun Ajlouni — knew they wanted to do something. Usually the four faculty members send goofy and — as they like to put it — borderline harassing emails to each other, but in this instance her three companions had laser beam focus. 

“Now it’s our turn to be in the background, to let her do this on her own but know that we are here to support her with whatever we can.”

—Ari Valverde, D3

That’s when they came up with the idea to sell wristbands to anyone willing to champion Snuggs’ cause. They thought they had enough when they ordered the first batch of 250, with the words “no one fights alone” etched on purple silicon. Within a week, they had run out of wristbands, 350 more had been ordered and Clemetson had a growing list of people requesting more.

“Even people that don’t even know Grace very well have said to me, ‘Just tell me what I need to do,’” Clemetson says. “Those who don’t know her directly have heard about her from somebody. They’re convinced by the people who know her.”

In support of Dr. Grace Snuggs

The restorative sciences patient appointment associate team

Media Resources/Steven Doll

They hear stories like those shared by Ajlouni, who first met Snuggs back in 2007 when she filled his role in the fixed prosthodontic lab. He speaks of the woman who treats him as a brother, recalling the times she invited him to dinner with her family when she was concerned that he was losing weight. Or the day Snuggs took Ajlouni’s sister-in-law, then a new mom, shopping for baby supplies. Even though Snuggs had only met her once, the two women spent the entire afternoon together.

“That’s Grace,” says Ajlouni.

They may hear about the co-worker — known for her quick wit and endearing tendency to give nicknames — who makes the workplace more like a family business than a state-run institution.

Dr. Steve Karbowski, chair of restorative sciences, puts it like this: “She believes in setting high standards for student performance but is also willing to go the extra mile to assist them in achieving their goals.

“There is an old saying, that it is better to light even one small candle than to curse the darkness. Grace is a candle lighter.”

If you ask students, you’ll hear about the teacher who — as D2 Isabella Mejia says — talks to students on their level, as a colleague, instead of as a distant authority figure.

D3 Ari Valverde worked closely with Snuggs in her role as co-president of the college’s HSDA chapter from 2011 to 2012.

“In HSDA when we would do something, Dr. Snuggs would let us do it on our own, but she would always be there supporting us,” says Valverde. “She pushes us to achieve things, but she’s always there in the background.

“Now it’s our turn to be in the background, to let her do this on her own but know that we are here to support her with whatever we can."

Want to know more about how you can show support to Dr. Grace Snuggs?

Contact Nita Munguia, clinical administration manager, at ext. 8370 or nmunguia@bcd.tamhsc.edu.