Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dental Care Partners

By Christy Houghton


Who likes to go to the dentist? Nobody I know! But Greater Seattle Cares (GSC) and Medical Teams International (MTI) have a new partner that is helping make that visit to the dentist a little easier for residents of Tent City 3 and other formal homeless encampments.

It’s 8:00 a.m. on March 22nd, and the door of the UW Fisheries Science Building opens, admitting a volunteer who escorts a man walking with a cane. A black Lab with a graying muzzle ambles over for a polite sniff. In the middle of the great hall, a small fluffy white Maltese sits near three reclining dental chairs. Open-mouthed patients lie in the chairs, each tended by a small team of dental students with a faculty advisor. Behind them, a long table is laid out with dental supplies, while on the other side a separate room has been designated for X-rays. Down the hall, other dental students are checking patients in, helping them fill out paperwork, or sitting to chat with them while they wait to be seen. Outside, the big red MTI Mobile Dental Van is parked next to Tent City 3, accommodating two more third-year dental students and another of the dental school’s faculty. This is Husky Health Bridge at work.

The little white dog is mine,” says Brandon Walker, a former U.S. Marine turned dental student. “Earlier this morning, Teddy sat on a patient’s lap during her whole procedure.” Brandon is the “Media and PR guy” for Husky Health Bridge, a nonprofit formed last October by a group of first-year UW dental students who wanted to extend dental services to underserved groups in the area. He and a faculty advisor even brought their dogs today to help ensure the best possible dental experience for people who may be pretty scared after not having seen a dentist in a while.

This is the second time that Husky Health Bridge, MTI and GSC have organized a dental clinic for Tent City 3 while it has been hosted at the UW. Justin, a camp resident, had a molar extracted by this same group just one month earlier. “They were very nice. I was nervous because they were students, but they were very knowledgeable,” he says. Today, they’ve given him fluoride toothpaste and a soft brush to help with the sensitivity in his mouth while the area around the extraction heals.

Greater Seattle Cares has collaborated with MTI for several years, bringing free dental care to the residents of Tent City 3. MTI provides the mobile dental van, which has two dental chairs, onsite x-rays, and some advanced dental equipment. Usually, MTI also finds volunteer dentists to serve on the van. Greater Seattle Cares serves as liaison with the camp and assures a constant flow of patients through the clinic. And this year, Husky Health Bridge (HHB) joined the partnership, bringing enough dental equipment and volunteers to treat another three people at a time. Even more importantly, HHB has committed to “adopting” Tent City 3, providing volunteers to bring the MTI dental van to the camp, wherever it is, on a monthly basis.

For today, however, this dental services partnership is closing up shop. HHB volunteers pack up the mobile dental chairs, the dental equipment, the generator and the extra supplies. The MTI Clinic Manager ties down everything in the Mobile Dental Van with bungee cords and maneuvers the huge red vehicle carefully out of the parking lot, heading back to the MTI headquarters in Redmond. The GSC Dental Program Coordinator secures all the dental charts for storage in a locked filing cabinet in her garage. “All together, the Husky Health Bridge/MTI/GSC team saw 20 patients today, many with complex dental problems,” she reports. “Though the clinic was supposed to close at 2 PM, the volunteers have all stayed until well after 5 PM in order to make sure that every patient could be seen. This kind of commitment really sends a message to people living in homelessness that they are important, that they matter.”

And that can make coming to the dentist not so scary after all.