Dental chair deliverance

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

Fifty-six Sweet Home children, mostly from Foster Elementary School, received free dental care last week as part of the first stop in an effort to reduce tooth decay in Oregon, which organizers say is worse than most of the country.

Oregon Education Association Choice Trust and The Dental Foundation of Oregon are funding the program, which includes a van that travels around the state, spending a week in each district it visits.

The van is equipped with two state-of-the-art stations so it can accommodate a volunteer dentist and assistant and a paid dentist and assistant, Program Manager May Daly said. Amy Berg of Sweet Home volunteered on the van last week, along with dentist Mike Goger of Albany. Goger is on the Dental Foundation board and helped get the program going.

“The school does the preliminary screenings,” Daly said. Students selected by the district then visit the van for further screening.

The students are rated from one to four, based on how seriously they need treatment, Dr. Weston Harrington said. He tries to treat all of the threes and fours, those with cavities and abscesses.

The program can treat up to 16 patients per day when it has two dentists working, Harrington said.

Students qualify for treatment if they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Daly said, or if they have no insurance or transportation is unavailable.

“We had a fourth-grader yesterday who had never been to the dentist,” Daly said.

“The ones that have the worst cases of oral decay are the ones that we’ll treat,” Daly said. Treatments include extractions, restorations, cleanings and pretty much anything a dental office offers.

“Tooth decay is one of the biggest reasons kids miss school,” Harrington said. That’s partially because Oregon doesn’t fluoridate its water, along with socio-economic conditions that mean children’s teeth don’t get any fluoride, he said.

“We can get to kids who wouldn’t get access otherwise,” Harrington said.

“Oregon has one of the worst rates of oral health in the country,” Daly said. The state also has a shortage of dentists in 22 of its 36 counties.

East Linn County is underserved, said Joan Pappin, District 55 health services coordinator. Northwest Medical Teams runs a van into Sweet Home twice a year, two days total; so she appreciates getting a full week of dental service, she said.

About 90 percent of the children served last week were from Foster, Pappin said. Goger, working on a Northwest Medical van last year, identified other students who needed additional dental care. Pappin transported those students from across the district to Foster for treatment.

The district frequently deals with children who have tooth pain and need treatment, Pappin said. Oregon Health Plan is an option, but it takes time to get through the process. Many can’t get to the dentist or afford it, “so to have something like this for a week is unbelievable. It’s right here, and it’s very easily accessible.”

The program is aimed at reducing the oral decay rate, Daly said. It can only treat some students, but it’s not just about treatment. It’s education as well. When children leave the screenings, they receive a toothbrush and instructions how to use it.

“Most tooth decay is a preventable disease,” Harrington said.

That’s where education comes in, Daly said.

An adult needs to help children clean their teeth through age 8 or until they can write in cursive, Harrington said, offering a couple of tips. He often sees children 18 to 20 months old who have tooth decay because children are often pacified and fall asleep with a milk or juice bottle or even a breast, something parents shouldn’t allow, he said.

Members of the program hope to provide follow-up, but a return by the van to Sweet Home this school year is unlikely, she said. “We haven’t planned that right now. There’s such an incredible need to get around (the state).”

Harrington was in private practice from 1977 until this summer, he said. He also taught at dental school. He left both jobs to work on the van.

The OEA Choice Trust and Dental Foundation paid approximately $500,000 for the van, and they are paying for a dentist, manager and assistant, Daly said. The program relies on volunteers and coordinators in each district it visits.

“We’re thrilled to have this, and it’s great to bring this kind of direct service to the community,” Daly said.

“I can’t be more appreciative of them coming,” Pappin said. “It was a dream come true.”