Mobile dental clinic offers free care in Ohio


AKRON, Ohio (AP) — The first-grader lying on his back in the dentist's chair clutched his blue hall pass like a lifeline on the last day of school at Glover elementary in Akron.

The dentist chair was one of three inside a 42-foot-long mobile dental clinic operated by University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital. The clinic was parked outside the school for the fifth time since mid-May because so many kids needed the free care.

The boy was among 37 children at Glover who received exams, cleanings, fillings, baby root canals, crowns or extractions.

The dentist and assistants weren't sure how the little guy would do, but they had several ways to ease a child's fears, starting with hiding all the scary implements and syringes.

"The trays, when the kids come back, are covered up," said Catrina Humphreys, a dental assistant who also drives the truck. "And the needles are around the back and to the doctor so the kids don't see them."

The first-grader in the chair was getting a crown for his tooth and he cried out a few times when something hurt or maybe just felt scary or weird.

The dentist, Margaret Ferretti, and her assistant, Tina Zabos, took frequent breaks and coaxed the boy with encouraging words.

"If they're too hesitant, we won't see them," Zabos said. "We don't want them to have a bad experience. A lot of kids, this is the first time going to the dentist, ever."

If kids start clawing at their own faces or thrashing their arms around, the dentist backs off and refers the child to a regular clinic.

But the boy kept his hands by his side, one hand grasping the hall pass, the other ready to snap upright and signal the assistant if he felt things getting too "pinchy."

Within about 40 minutes, he had a new crown and a toothache-free summer ahead of him.

"You're such a big boy. We knew you could it," Zabos said. "Thank you for being a good helper. High-five?"

He obliged with a high-five hand slap and took his hall pass back to class after choosing three stickers and a pencil decorated with smiley faces for his bravery.

The mobile clinic, which has been on the road in Northeast Ohio for about two years, is a collaboration of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio and the Irving and Jeanne Tapper Pediatric Dental Center at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

The mobile clinic serves only kids who don't have a dentist of their own, but it provides the same services as a regular dentist's office, including cleanings, oral health exams and X-rays. Kids (and parents) also get information about how to brush and floss their teeth.

"We do the cleanings and if they need something, then we come back and we do everything," Humphreys said. "If you have insurance, great, we accept it. But if you don't, you're not turned away."

She's been working for the clinic for almost five months.

"I drive this bad boy," she said. "They're training me for the dental assisting and I had to go to school to get my radiology license."

She has learned a lot watching how the dentists and assistants interact with the children, who are usually there without their parents and nervous at first. Some will sit in the dentist's lap before sitting in the chair.

A lot of mothering and kind attention earns a child's trust when it's time to work on their teeth, Humphrey's said.

Glover is the first Akron elementary school the clinic has visited.

School counselor Traci Balint discovered information about the program in her mail and initially thought it was too good to be sure. She hopes to bring the mobile clinic back to Glover next year and possibly to Firestone Park elementary, where she also works.

"As school counselor, I have a lot of parents in that community who come in wanting resources or needing help," Balint said. "A lot of them are the working class that are kind of in between; they may not qualify for Medicaid, but they can't afford insurance. They just really have a hard time affording health care. Or you have parents who do have insurance, yet times are hard right now and they can't afford the deductibles."

She sent notes home with all 400 or so of the school's children and received an overwhelming response. It required scheduling an additional three days with the clinic to make sure the kids who needed help got it before the end of the school year.

Humphreys said the work is important to do before summer vacation.

"A three-month stretch with a decent cavity in your mouth, and by the end of that three months, instead of saving that tooth, they might have to pull it," Humphreys said.

A third-grade girl who got a crown said she wasn't too scared because she'd already been in the truck for an earlier appointment.

"It did kind of hurt, but it didn't hurt as much as I thought it would," said Davianna Grose.

She did have a concern about the festivities planned for the last day of school, however.

"Don't worry, by the time you go to your ice cream party, it will not be numb anymore, OK?" Zabos said. "If you don't want any of your cupcakes, you can come bring them to me. Thanks for doing such a good job."

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