Dental students gain valuable experience during free clinic

  Ashfaq Rahman    October 19, 2012    1461


DatPatSome came to have teeth pulled. Others had loose fillings and painful cavities. A few needed dentures.

Saturday, about 30 Cowlitz County military veterans and their families said "Aaaaaaahhh" for University of Washington dental school students and faculty, who spent the day providing free oral screenings and treatment at the Longview Salvation Army and Kaiser Permanente.

The university has offered free dental clinics for low-income patients in Longview since 1999, but Saturday was the first time UW and its local health partners focused on veterans.

"What we're seeing are people who have not had dental care - not even emergency care - for years," said UW dental hygienist Marilynn Rothen, one of 70 volunteers who participated in Saturday's clinic, including 42 from UW.

According to Helen Reid, auxiliary president of the Kalama VFW Post 10435, veterans' dental care isn't covered by the federal Veteran's Administration unless the veteran suffered mouth injuries during military service or is 100 percent compensated.

Upstairs at the Salvation Army on Saturday morning, Rothen and two third-year dental students examined the mouths of 13 veterans who'd been referred to the program by various agencies. Several pre-dental students, all in scrubs, assisted with paperwork. Along one side of the room, the Cowlitz Free Medical Clinic offered free flu shots.

Longview resident Joe Andes, 39, who served a year in the U.S. Army Reserves before he was discharged for a knee injury in 1990, came in hoping to have a couple of painful teeth extracted. He'd been chewing aspirin to control the pain.

"I figure it'll stop hurting when the nerves die," said Andes, who hasn't had medical insurance in seven years.

He, along with eight other patients screened before lunch, were sent to Kaiser Permanente's dental office on Seventh Avenue to be treated by a team of local and UW dentists and students. Kaiser provided exam rooms, supplies, equipment and staff members for the clinic, which was put on in conjunction with Peace Health, the Cowlitz County Health Department and Regions Blue Shield.

FISH, a local charity, provided pain medications or antibiotics patients needed following treatment.

In addition to helping the disadvantaged, UW's free clinics gives dental students real-world experience with those who haven't had access to dental care, and to teach the students compassion, said clinic coordinator Darlene Smolen, a healthcare consultant.

"We touch people's lives and they touch our lives," she said.

For the last two years, female UW dental students have done dental screenings at the Emergency Support Shelter for battered women and children in Kelso. The idea of helping veterans came about when the Longview Community Health Partners wanted to find an opportunity that wouldn't exclude male students, Smolen said.

Before the 20 dental and eight pre-dental students saw any patients Saturday, Dr. David Meyers, a dentist at Lower Columbia Mental Health, briefed them on what life is like for low-income and homeless veterans in Cowlitz County.

Third-year dental student Charmaine Felix, 26, of Seattle wasn't sure what to expect, but she thought most patients would have "an entirely bombed-out mouth." Instead, she was surprised to see the veterans had been trying to maintain their teeth and generally just needed some teeth pulled.

"After this experience, I'm even more enthused to ... reach out however I can," Felix said.

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