Emily Greenberg, a dental student with the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, and Berenice Burruel, a dental assistant, clean the teeth of a 7-year-old at St. Vincent de Paul’s dental clinic for children inside the Christown YMCA. Volunteer dentists and dental students provide some $3 million worth of free treatment every year. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Emily Greenberg, a dental student with the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, and Berenice Burruel, a dental assistant, clean the teeth of a 7-year-old at St. Vincent de Paul’s dental clinic for children inside the Christown YMCA. Volunteer dentists and dental students provide some $3 million worth of free treatment every year. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Francis Richardson longed for a full set of teeth so much that he created his own using a sheet of white paper and a pen.

Virginia G. Piper Medical and Dental Clinic

Offers free dental care to patients by appointment. Adult dental patients accepted by lottery only. Next drawing is March 31.

Where: St. Vincent de Paul, 420 W. Watkins Road, Phoenix

Info: (602) 261-6868 or www.stvincentdepaul.net for online application

He knew they wouldn’t do any good, but the paper teeth were perfect for a photo with his favorite dentist and hygienist at the Virginia G. Piper Medical and Dental Clinic.

The teeth — besides being a fairly good fit — also kept the mood light at the free clinic, which is now in its 20th year at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s main campus in Phoenix.

“I didn’t plan on my teeth being like they were,” Richardson said of his original teeth.

His body had trouble processing milk and cheese. That led to a bone deficiency. It was hard for Richardson to swear off dairy though. A couple of heart attacks and diabetes left Richardson’s mouth even more susceptible to infection and gum disease.

Before coming to St. Vincent de Paul late last year, Richardson estimated it had been a decade or so since he had seen a dentist.

“There wasn’t too much in there to play around with,” he said while fumbling with his dark brown cowboy hat.

The “sheriff” finally found a dentist he can trust and even joke around with at St. Vincent de Paul’s dental clinic.

“They did a good job, too. See?” Richardson said, about two-and-a-half weeks after receiving a full set of dentures.

He flashed a perfect smile framed by his white, wiry beard. His friends are even doing double takes and questioning if the teeth are from a costume department.

Five months earlier, his mouth looked completely different. His outlook was cautiously optimistic.

“You have worries when you first go to the dentist, but these guys are so cool,” Richardson said, noting that he could easily nap in the dental chair he sat in, “Sometimes people give you the willies, but here everybody smiles.”

Many of the patients, who racked up some 6,700 office visits last, year would agree.

“They’re always laughing when they come and when they get out,” Diana Ballesteros said about her two eldest kids.

Her 7- and 4-year-olds have been coming to the dental clinic’s site strictly for children at the Christown YMCA since November. It was their first visit to the dentist.

Francis Richardson shows off his new smile at St. Vincent de Paul's adult dental clinic Feb. 26 while showing a photo of himself when the only teeth he had were made of paper. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Francis Richardson shows off his new smile at St. Vincent de Paul’s adult dental clinic Feb. 26 while showing a photo of himself when the only teeth he had were made of paper. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

The children’s clinic opened two years ago to address unmet dental needs in the area and provide additional training opportunities for dental students. Professional dentists also volunteer at both locations, offering some $3 million each year in free care.

Partnering with nurses at area schools brought in a new wave of patients. Some 58 percent of children in the area live in households that receive public assistance.

Dr. Ken Snyder, director of the dental clinic, said it’s often a lack of knowledge that keeps patients away from the dentist. They don’t have a lot of the knowhow to investigate the steps to find low-cost or no-cost care.

“It’s sad that there’s a tremendous need,” Dr. Snyder said. “We see a lot of things here that sometimes other offices don’t care to take care of.”

Irene Marrufo’s 13-year-old son, Felix, could easily fall into that category. His autism makes teeth brushing and routine dental appointments a challenge. Marrufo has had to warn other dentists not to speak sternly to him or visit after hours to minimize distractions.

Not at the St. Vincent de Paul clinic. Dentists and hygienists there put him at ease, often singing to him or requesting a tune from Felix. He loves to show off what he knows, whether it’s a country’s anthem he learned by watching online videos or the names of state and country capitols.

Dr. Snyder estimated some 500 kids have received dental care and hygiene education at both clinic locations this year alone.

Pressing need

The dental clinic helps a hidden set of patients too: victims of domestic violence. A dental assistant program for former victims gives them a set of job skills and restores their self-esteem. A handful have graduated.

Completion of a course or treatment doesn’t mark success at the dental clinic though. Understanding the vital importance of oral health does.

Dr. Snyder noted Richardson’s paper teeth and the children he sees who start to dress better over the course of their treatment. They smile big even between multiple extractions and a set of dentures.

“Not only is it a physical transformation because they can chew better, eat better. It’s a confidence booster,” Dr. Snyder said.

Others go from covering their mouths when they speak to speaking freely. At least the lucky ones do. The demand is so high at the adult dental clinic and required treatment so extensive that only 125 new patients are accepted by lottery each quarter. The last lottery had 1,582 entries.

“We get calls everyday, ‘Did I win?’” Janice Ertl, director of St. Vincent de Paul’s medical and dental clinic, said. “You just can’t constantly answer the questions. I feel for the people. Adult dental is just a huge unmet need in this community.”

She said not everyone gets sick at the same time, but the need for dental care is always there. And it’s the gateway to overall health — even a cavity is a chronic infection.

Felix didn’t have any cavities at his last checkup.

Richardson plans to better monitor his oral health. He’s eager to bite into a hamburger and corn straight from the cob.

“I crunched my first piece of candy a couple of days ago,” Richardson said, recalling its strawberry flavor.

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