Dedicating one's life to serving others doesn't always come with a full benefits package: medical, dental, life and paid vacation. That's why Melissa Smith and her husband Joshua were thrilled to hear that free dental care would be available to them at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry's inaugural Dental Mission Week.
During the week of Feb. 6-10, the school shut down normal operations and opened its doors to Mississippi's underserved community. Patients from the metro area and as far away as Pascagoula and Greenwood arrived well before eight Monday morning to receive much needed care.
The goal was to provide dental care to 800 adult patients between Monday and Thursday. As of Thursday morning, expected to be the biggest day yet, more than 450 patients had been treated.
Smith, a Jackson transplant from California, had not visited a dentist since she quit her desk job about five years ago to become a missionary. Her husband, Joshua, who grew up in Star, doesn't remember the last time he saw a dentist, if ever.
The couple met doing mission work with We Will Go Ministries in Jackson. Although they have traveled out of country ministering to others, their hearts are in Jackson where they spend their days distributing food, clothing and a kind word to less fortunate residents of the capital city.
When the dentistry school dropped off patient packets at the ministry, the Smiths jumped at the opportunity to receive dental care.
Joshua Smith, left, and his wife Melissa have just had their teeth cleaned and are waiting to have restorative fillings.
“I think this is amazing that you would reach out to the community like this, especially for people like me and Joshua. We are missionaries. We don't have regular health care because we don't have steady income,” Melissa said. “For us to be to be able to come here and get dental care, we were like 'This is amazing! Praise Jesus!'”
The Smiths are not alone in their reasons for skipping the recommended twice yearly visits to a dentist. According to an American Dental Association survey, more than half of Mississippians who have not seen a dentist in the last 12 months gave cost as the main reason for neglecting oral health care.
Having good oral health isn't just about one's appearance. People who have poor oral health tend to choose unhealthy foods over fresh fruits and vegetables at the expense of their overall health. Research has suggested that there may be a connection between oral health and cardiovascular disease, as well.
Dental Mission Week was born from the students' desire to serve the community. Dr. David Felton, dean of the school and professor of care planning and restorative sciences, said one of the two biggest complaints from students when he arrived on campus was that service learning week didn't include enough actual service.
Felton assists third-year dental student Christina McRea with creating a set of dentures.
“The students said, 'We just sit in a classroom eight hours a day and learn about service. Some students get to shadow local dentists, and some don't.' My thought was, if we are going to teach our students about service, let's actually provide some service,'” Felton said. “That complaint evolved into this week, and I think it's a great addition to the school.”
Organization of the event has involved months of teamwork led by Marla Martin, director of clinical operations. The concerted effort included the School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy and School of Health Related Professions. Even a handful of students from the School of Medicine found time to volunteer on Monday, despite their packed classroom schedule.
Upon check-in, each patient was seen by a nursing student or faculty member for medical triage. Dr. Josie Bidwell, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and director of clinical services at UNACARE, said that triage included blood pressure and glucose checks, medical histories and medications review to ensure patients met basic health requirements for dental procedures.
Junior nursing student Anne Sinclair checks the blood pressure of patient Thomas Murphy of Jackson.
“We had tons of students sign up, which is great because we have been very, very busy,” Bidwell said. “There have been anywhere from 10 to 30 nursing students each day, as well as pharmacy and medical students.” She said that the students will get credit for the volunteer service hours, and for some, time spent in medical triage will count as a clinical rotation in their coursework.
Students, residents and faculty from the School of Pharmacy staffed a limited formulary at discharge to provide patients with medication to take home: antibiotics, pain relievers or prescription oral rinse, as needed.
Dr. Katie McClendon, assistant dean for student services in the School of Pharmacy, said that 121 faculty, residents and third- and fourth-year students from the school volunteered their time.
After medical triage, dental faculty assessed patients in dental triage to determine their chief complaint. Patients were then provided with x-rays and assigned to a clinic based on treatment need: extractions, restorations, root canals or periodontal treatments.
Dental hygiene students Holly Loft, left, and Meredith Loper, right, clean patient Melissa Smith's teeth.
Dr. Beckie Barry, professor of dental hygiene in the School of Health Related Professions, said that all 34 students from the dental hygiene program participated in the event, some in radiology and extraction recovery but most providing cleanings.
Twenty-two patients were selected ahead of time from the waiting list of Mississippi Donated Dental Services to receive full upper and lower dentures.
John Sutton, a 78-year-old retired auto-body worker from Brandon was one of the 22 selected. His seven-year-old dentures had broken, and he had been without replacements for about a year.
Sutton said that he was impressed by the level of professionalism he was receiving at the school. Third-year dental student Gatlin Glover was assigned to his care, under the instruction of Dr. Barry Rubel, professor of care planning and restorative sciences. Impressions were made on Monday, and Rubel said his team stayed until after nine that night to ensure the dentures would be ready for fitting on Wednesday.
“He acts like a professional, and he has a nice instructor too,” Sutton said of Glover. “I like the way they do that, you know. He is very concerned about how he is doing his job. He's taking his time to make them fit well.”
Glover, left, makes minor adjustments to Sutton's dentures during a fitting appointment on Wednesday.
Sutton said his wife, Barbara, received a cleaning on Tuesday and hopes to come back to the school at some point to have a partial denture made.
The Mississippi Dental Association helped recruit practicing dentists to donate time or money to the week's events. Fourteen local dentists participated in patient care.
“MDA supports Dental Mission Week because it is reaching a group of people who are not currently getting dental services,” said Dr. Mark Williams, MDA president. “There is a big need out there. We are glad to see the dental school pursue this project that will benefit the public to both provide care and also increase the awareness of the need for dental care.”
Considering the success of the event and the level of need in the state, the school is already thinking ahead to next year.
“The patients seem to be incredibly appreciative,” Felton said. “I think Dental Mission Week has been extremely successful for our first attempt.
"We'll do an analysis of the event next week to get input on how we can improve, then we'll start planning for next year.”