Free dental work frees smiles
Vail, CO Colorado
EDWARDS ” Daisy Alarcon was undergoing several painful drilling procedures that would make most adults cringe, but the six-year-old remained the model patient.
“Open wide like a tiger!” said dental assistant Kirsten Hoffman.
Daisy, of Edwards, needs seven pulpotomies, or root canals, and this may be her only chance to get the procedure done without charge.
In June, 190 area children between the ages of 5 and 18 received free dental screenings, and now many of those patients are receiving free treatment from the Colorado Smile Makers program’s mobile dental clinic.
The clinic, staffed with four fourth-year dentistry students, a dental assistant and a supervising dentist, is a converted RV, complete with three stations and a digital X-ray lab.
“It’s as high tech as any clinic out there,” said CU dentist and supervisor Kim Schilling, gesturing to the brightly decorated van.
The clinic will remain in Edwards until Aug. 3, doing everything from filling cavities to putting in crowns to performing root canals on 120 children. The services are offered based on need, and many of their patients are uninsured or on Medicaid, Schilling said.
Daisy’s mother, Rocio Alarcon, 24, of Edwards, said that when her daughter was diagnosed with quite a few cavities, she did not think that she and her husband, who does tile work, would be able to afford the treatment. Then someone told her about the program.
“It’s good that it’s free. Her teeth were really bad, and it’s expensive here to get it fixed,” she said.
A recent county health assessment showed a great need for dental services, especially for children, public health nurse Bethany Van Wyk said.
Many families in the county do not have dental insurance, or they have Medicaid, which is not accepted by many clinics. As a result, many children live with constant tooth pain and extensive decay, which can even spread to the brain, she said.
According to the survey, 23 percent of Eagle County third graders have untreated tooth decay.
The need is great, said Schilling, calling it a “have-and-have-not” situation.
“You see people here who can afford to have the most expensive aesthetic work done, and then you have people who are begging for a voucher just to get the pain taken care of,” she said.
In light of that, a community task force, in conjunction with the school of dentistry, created this program through a federal grant. Van Wyk said she also is amazed at the community support the program has received. Resorts offered lodging for the students, groups provided food, and others volunteered their locations and financial support.
The clinic runs completely on volunteer support, from the dental students to the translators who help the many families who do not speak English.
Dental student Jeff Fletcher said the clinic work is part of his school’s program ” all students do 100 hours of work in underserved areas. He chose this program because it gave him a chance to work with children and give back to the community, he said.
“When you think of Vail, you don’t think of the underprivileged, but there’s a great need here,” he said.
Dental student Sabrina Goff said she liked the idea of going out and offering a service to children that they would not receive otherwise. She has been most struck by the gratefulness of the families and the cooperation of the children ” few adults, much less children, sit so compliantly for hours to see the dentist, she said.
Many of these patients have not had much dental care and some have rarely ever sat in a dentist’s chair. One such patient is Edwards resident Juan Martinez, 15. He has only been to the dentist once since his family moved from Mexico eight years ago, he said.
He has had tooth pain in his front teeth for a while, he told Fletcher.
Edwards resident Maria Arreola sat in the waiting room as her 14-year-old son, Reydesel, had his cavities filled. She has three other children and her husband does construction work. She said she is very grateful that the community cares enough to offer these services for free, she said.
“If it weren’t for these people, we would not be able to take care of this,” she said.
The clinic will return to Eagle County twice for two-week periods in August and September. Organizers said they hope this is just a start to establishing a more permanent source of dental care for those in need of it.
Cathy McRory, a paramedic at the Eagle County ambulance district where the clinic was held, said she hopes to eventually have a stand-alone clinic staffed by local dentists. Some area dentists do pro bono work, she said, but the need far exceeds what is offered.
Now, not only will their patients be pain-free, healthier and better educated about oral care, but they will be more confident, too, Schilling said.
“They’ll smile a lot more,” she said with a grin.
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.