Your Oral Health Matters More Than You Know

IMG_8138-1

This past week the GLO Good team traveled from New York to Los Angeles to volunteer at Care Harbor LA, a massive healthcare clinic offering free medical, dental and vision care to the underserved. The clinic took over the LA Memorial Sports Arena for the span of four days, attracting countless people hopeful to receive the care they desperately needed. Hundreds of volunteers came together to bring help to thousands in need.

We arrived early on day one, to a line wrapped far around the LA Sports Arena. These folks were no strangers to long lines, as each had already waited over 24 hours to receive a wristband for admission. The sun, which was just peeking above the horizon at this hour, served as a symbol of optimism and forward momentum.

Each patient was eligible to receive treatment for just one area of care: medical, dental or vision. Dental was by far the biggest need at Care Harbor, as the number of individuals looking for an extraction, filling, cleaning, or more, significantly exceeded the number of dental wristbands distributed.

I treated patients ranging from recent graduates, to young mothers with children, to grown adults. None had visited a dentist in nearly 10 years, and most were without a job, on a significant amount of medication, and/or unable to work. The state of oral health was in free fall.

The fighting spirit and courage of one woman in particular stands out in my mind. Sandy waited over 24 hours to receive a dental wristband, but due to limited quantities, was given a vision wristband. She also needed an optometry exam and a new pair of glasses, but this was not her chief complaint. While waiting for her eye exam, she visited me in the preventative dentistry section and shared her story.

Sandy was involved in a serious accident in 1991, resulting in several broken bones, severe bleeding, and partial paralysis. Her health deteriorated over time, as memory loss, grand mal seizures, and Transient Ischemic Attack’s (TIA’s) entered the picture. Once a young and ambitious entrepreneur, Sandy’s serious medical condition left her housebound and unable to work. The absence of income and the steady flow of medical bills forced her to put her oral health on the back burner.

It had been over 10 years since Sandy visited the dentist. The infrequency of cleanings and sizeable concoction of medication taken on a daily basis had taken a toll on her oral health. She had visited the emergency room (an increasing trend these days) a handful of times for tooth pain, but had yet to meet a provider who would treat her without an x-ray. Sandy cannot afford an x-ray. As her overall health has declined, so has the health of her mouth.

Sandy was fully aware of the link between oral health and overall health, as doctors have associated many of her ailments to the condition of her mouth She expressed her grave desire to have three severely decayed teeth extracted and declared with cautious optimism that today was the day she would see a dentist.

Sandy was one of the last patients that day to receive a cleaning, and I’ll never forget the way her eyes lit up when she learned she was receiving the care she so desired. The depth of her gratitude and her humility truly touched me.

Sandy’s story mimics thousands of others who need treatment but lack access to care. The fine line between having and not having proper care is unfortunately tiptoed by too many Americans. The recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act is an important step forward, but we can’t stop there. With roughly 85 million Americans lacking access to dental care, America is facing an oral health crisis. It’s time for healthcare stakeholders to replicate the Care Harbor model and collaborate on a grassroots level to bring care to those in need. The foundation of optimal oral health is education and prevention; if problems are treated early, we will have a healthier country and spend less on our overall healthcare. Time to mobilize!

Oral Health Resources

  • For information on affordable oral health resources in your area, visit your state’s dental association website. The ADA provides a list here.
  • The America’s Dentist Care Foundation, provides low-cost dental care around the country through Missions of Mercy.
  • The GLO Good foundation supports oral health initiatives in underserved populations globally by providing people with the tools and education they need to keep their mouth’s healthy.