Providing dental care for Vondregus Bailey, a Jackson Free Clinic patient, are, from left, Dr. George May, associate clinical professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, Kara Cook, dental student, and Hayden Coffey, dental student.
Providing dental care for Vondregus Bailey, a Jackson Free Clinic patient, are, from left, Dr. George May, associate clinical professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, Kara Cook, dental student, and Hayden Coffey, dental student.
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Jackson Free Clinic dental services now have more 'teeth'

Published on Monday, February 22, 2021

By: Ruth Cummins

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Vondregus Bailey’s landscaping business hard at about the same time four of his teeth started going south, two of them with abscesses.

Without the means to pay for dental work, Bailey searched for solutions online and found the Jackson Free Clinic, which offers non-emergency medical and dental care and is run by students from the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Students from the Schools of Health Related Professions and Pharmacy also volunteer and help run the clinic. 

On Feb. 6, he made the almost two-hour drive from Greenwood to the clinic in Jackson’s Midtown, a short drive from UMMC. “I had four teeth extracted,” Bailey said. “I didn’t want to get all four pulled, but two of the four were infected, and they told me it would be best. I took their medical advice.”

Bailey visited the Saturdays-only clinic at 925 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard the same day as it debuted dental services in an adjacent building renovated to accommodate six dental chairs, as opposed to just two in the medical clinic space. It means that more people like Bailey, who are in extreme dental pain, can get swift care rather than possibly wait weeks or months for an appointment.

Fourth-year dental students Collin Peterson and Katelyn Allen are co-directors of the dental services at the Jackson Free Clinic.
Collin Peterson and Katelyn Allen, fourth-year dental students, serve as co-directors of dental services at the Jackson Free Clinic.

“Some weekends, we have 70 voicemails from people in pain,” said fourth-year dental student Katelyn Allen, who co-directs the dental services with fellow fourth-year student Collin Peterson. On average, the clinic has treated 20 patients per Saturday.

The need to treat more dental patients in a bigger space has been great for years. “In January 2020, we were booked until May 2020,” said JoJo Dodd, a third-year medical student and JFC director of education and research, where he’s also board chair-elect. “We thought that wasn’t acceptable, and that if the demand wasn’t going to change, we would have to. If you are in dental pain and we tell you four months until an appointment, that’s not a solution.”

The backlog became more dire in summer 2020 as COVID-19 robbed people of their livelihoods and health insurance. “It was hard for us to fill the needs, because we had just two dental chairs where we could perform extractions and fulfill the overwhelming needs of our patient population,” Allen said.

Peterson and Allen stepped up. “At that time, the JFC owned the building next door, and the tenant had passed away. We could either rent it to another tenant, or expand the JFC if there was an area that wanted to expand,” Peterson said.

An aging office building adjacent to the Jackson Free Clinic was gutted and renovated to accommodate much-needed dental services for patients.
An aging office building adjacent to the Jackson Free Clinic was gutted and renovated to accommodate much-needed dental services for patients.

Their vision: Offering not only extractions and treatment for acute pain, but comprehensive restorative and preventive dental work to save teeth, not just pull them. “The only option we have right now is to take the tooth out,” Allen said.

“We want to try to save it. A patient might come to us with a severely decayed tooth that can’t be restored, but we see other things going on that we can take care of that if we did not, could lead to the same situation as with the decayed tooth.”

In August 2020, Allen and Peterson spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to about 800 Mississippi dentists, seeking donations to renovate and equip the building to offer six chairs. “We knew it wouldn’t be an easy task. Dental equipment and supplies are very expensive,” Peterson said. 

But within four months, they raised their goal of $75,000 to pay for the building renovations. The Bower Foundation donated a substantial portion, Peterson said. “It was pretty amazing.” 

The building was gutted and work completed in January, with move-in the first week of February. The original two chairs were moved, and fundraising continues for three additional chairs and equipment for treatment.

Dental student Hayden Coffey peers into the mouth of patient Donald Cook.
Coffey peers into Donald Cook's mouth.

“There’s so much we need,” Peterson said. “One dental manufacturer donated a brand new dental chair that retails for about $20,000, and it should be coming in this month. It’s a true blessing for us. We operate only on donations – no state or federal assistance. We really depend on our donors.”

Dental services are offered three Saturdays a month with hopes of expanding to four Saturdays. The JFC hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Only fourth-year dental students are allowed to treat patients, with first- through third-year students performing patient triage and other tasks in addition to observing.

“They learn how to take a patient’s health and dental history, how to do a basic exam and how to sterilize equipment,” Allen said. “They get a lot of patient experience, and that’s good for them before they enter the dental clinic at the School of Dentistry.”

A dental faculty member is always on hand to supervise and offer assistance if needed, but it’s the students who do the work. That large group of volunteers includes Dr. George May, a clinical assistant professor and oral and maxillofacial surgeon who also has a private practice in Flowood.

Dr. George May

“It’s the most well-run organization I’ve ever seen, and they’re doing this while they’re going to school,” he said of students who volunteer at JFC. “It’s all students, doing all the appointments, transactions, teaching of other students and the treatment.

“They help lots and lots of people across the state. Their excitement is infectious. They put so much of their time, when they don’t have a lot of time, into this,” May said. “This is a chance for them to really gain some confidence by doing things they’ve learned to do, but not actually done. They do 95 percent of the work, and (faculty) help on the hard ones.” 

Patients have come from as far away as New Orleans and Lexington, Tenn., Allen said. They’re grateful for the health professionals in the making who are taking away their pain.

“The students who treated me were pretty good,” said Bailey, whose landscaping business has declined by 35-40 percent due to COVID and inclement weather. “They were prompt, professional and pretty informative. They were nice people.” 

School of Dentistry students and volunteers at the Jackson Free Clinic include, front from left, Katelyn Allen, Kara Cook, Reema Patel, Lakymberya Buckner, Elisabeth Sinclair, Laden Hajje; and back row, from left, Cedar Baik, Dr. George May, Brian McCollough, Hayden Coffrey, Collin Peterson, Lucas Bishop and Jack Cutrer.
School of Dentistry students and volunteers serving at the Jackson Free Clinic include, front row from left, Allen, Cook, Reema Patel, Lakymberya Buckner, Elisabeth Sinclair and Laden Hajje, and back row from left, Cedar Baik, May, Brian McCollough, Coffey, Peterson, Lucas Bishop and Jack Cutrer.

If a dental patient is experiencing medical issues – high blood pressure is frequently identified - dental students might send them to the medical portion of the clinic, and vice versa with medical patients coping with dental problems. “It really is a symbiotic relationship,” Dodd said.

“Students volunteering at the Free Clinic are exposed to the benefits of working with other health care professionals in a way that other students aren’t quite as much. When you learn in the classroom how important pharmacists are, that’s one thing. But when working with them in the Free Clinic, you understand the value that someone else adds to the team.”

“We want this done before we graduate,” Allen said of the remaining fundraising. “The best way to do this is to write a check to the JFC and to put ‘dental clinic’ in the memo field.” Students also are grateful for equipment donations from the dental community and industry. Contact Allen at kallen4@umc.edu or Peterson at cpeterson@umc.edu

Checks can be mailed to the UMMC Office of Development, Development Accounting, 2500 N. State St., Jackson, Miss. 39216.

It’s exciting to watch the transformation, May said. “The flow is so much smoother, being in our own area,” he said. “Katelyn said the students did more the first day the new space opened since they’ve been keeping records. It’s shocking and amazing how students run this so well.”