Red Bird Mission — a clinic with a heart
by Sandra Sangster, RDH
In June 2001, I was part of a five-woman team operating a children's dental clinic at Red Bird Mission. The setting: the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, one of the three poorest areas in the United States. This was the second year we ran the clinic. Barb Stackhouse, a dental hygienist from Indiana, organized the program. She brought with her two of her dental-assisting students, Lindsay Miller and Laura Miller, and her friend, Jane Kaufman, who coordinated all of the front-desk work. I'm Sandra Sangster, a dental hygienist licensed in New Jersey.
There is a dental clinic at Red Bird Mission, but only for older children and adults. The younger children have to travel about an hour to get to the nearest dentist, not something likely to happen for most of them. So, we tried to fill the gap for as many children as possible. We took X-rays, did cleanings, placed sealants, educated, and referred patients to a dentist when needed — all for a cost of $5 per child.
Last year, most of the older kids we saw were in pretty good shape dentally, but the preschoolers had a lot of decay. Why? The best conclusion we could come up with was that fluoride is recommended and given to many of the school-age kids. This year, we were happy to see that most of our repeat patients had the dental work they needed done. They had even remembered what they learned about how to take care of their teeth!
Since I do not hold a Kentucky dental hygiene license, I am not allowed to clean teeth. My job was to educate the children. I believe that unless we educate whole families, we are only doing half the job. Sometimes it got a bit crowded in my room with entire families there. But what fun we had — preschoolers to grandparents all in the same place! We sent them all home with bags of dental "goodies" that had been donated by various companies. The kids also got toys. Many a teddy bear got its teeth cleaned that week.
As exciting as everything was for me, the time that touched my heart most was when an adult with a toothache came to see the dentist. He had to wait for quite a while, during which time he kept trying to see what we were doing. When break time came, I wandered over with my bag of tricks: toothbrush, floss, paste, sugarless gum, and a mirror. My intention was to give him my best patient-education spiel, but we never did get that far.
He told me his wife had recently died. She was only 34. He did not know why she had died and probably never would. I asked him if he would like for me to pray for both her and him.
He looked at me with great big eyes and said, "You'd do that for me? You don't even know me!"
I said I would; that God didn't care who we knew as long as we know Him. (I did warn him that I'm menopausal and would probably cry!) We both cried, then talked a little more. After that, it was time to see the dentist.
I never did get to teach the man to floss, but I think the prayer helped more. I think of him every now and then and pray that his hurt is easing. He touched my heart.
We're already planning for next year's clinic. If you have a Kentucky dental or hygiene license and want to join us, or are interested in donating another week of greatly needed dentistry, let me know. I can be reached at [email protected]. Keep smiling; you never know whose day you may brighten!
Sandra Sangster, RDH, graduated from Forsyth in Boston 36 years ago with a two-year degree and has been a practicing hygienist ever since. She has worn all of the many hats of dental hygiene, including public health, sales, education, consumer advocate, and clinical hygiene. She is a past president of the New Jersey Dental Hygienists Association and worked 10 years as legislative chair and liaison with the New Jersey Board of Dentistry. Her primary work has been in perio, so her trips to Red Bird Mission to work with children have been a fun diversion.