Have you ever performed a root canal on a child with
autism or Down syndrome? How about made a crown for
an adult with cerebral palsy? Fact is, if you have, you are
in the vast minority. Most dentists have not.
Dental schools rarely have a curriculum centered on
the disabled population. Since seeing disabled patients
requires a certain confidence, as well as longer appointment
times, many clinicians choose not to treat this segment
of the population, leaving many disabled children
and adults with unmet dental needs.
Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled
(DFDD), a nonprofit charity founded by Russell and
Marianne Benson, is dedicated to serving and supporting
the special needs of the developmentally disabled. The
organization realized the problem of unmet dental needs
and did something about it. The We Care Dental Center
started small in December of 2009. They borrowed space
two to three days a week and operated off donated
supplies, but the clinic didn’t stay small for long. In
September 2011, a permanent 1,210-square-foot, fourchair
clinic was opened in Rancho Mirage, California.
The clinic runs successfully via its numerous volunteers
– five dentists, as well as several dental and hygiene students
from Western University. The students are able to
provide dental cleanings, examinations and fillings. Under
the supervision of a dentist, the students can perform root
canals and tooth extractions as well. It’s a win-win situation.
The patients receive needed care and the students
gain experience they can’t receive in the classroom.
The patients also provide the volunteers with a sense of
compassion and humanism. Dr. Timothy Martinez,
Western University’s dean of community outreach, hopes
that by treating disabled patients now, the students will
learn how to treat these types of patients and not exclude
them once they start their own practices.
Those dentists who choose to treat disabled patients
often choose to do so with general anesthesia. We Care
prides itself on not using anesthesia. In fact, the clinic is
not even set up to administer it. Majorie Lumbley, a disabled
patient’s mother, said she often postponed teeth
cleanings for her daughter, Tina, because she didn’t want to
subject Tina to anesthesia. Tina commented on We Care
saying, “It’s like going to a real dentist’s office. You go and
you are treated like everyone else.”
Another reason We Care chooses not to administer
anesthesia is because many of the patients whom the clinic
treats have extensive medical histories. Many are on large
amounts of medication, and Dr. Mel Glick, a member of
the board of directors, notes, “We don’t want to over-medicate.”
Glick acknowledges that although many handicapped
patients can be successfully treated without
anesthesia, there are still rare cases that will require it.
Since We Care does not have an anesthesiologist on staff,
it cannot provide these services.
Glick argues that treating a disabled patient isn’t much
different than treating any other patient. Many dentists
approach the idea of treating a disabled individual with
some trepidation, but it usually stems from the fact that
they haven’t ever done so. He says it really just involves
“earning their trust and confidence.” His advice: speak
softly and help them to understand you have their best
interest at heart. He adds, “It takes patience, love and tenderness,”
but says, the process and procedures are the same.
Disabled patients generally have extensive caries and
periodontal disease. As a group, they tend not to brush
well and might need to be seen by a dentist more frequently
than others. They usually have a lot of missing
teeth, as well as abscessed and mobile teeth, Glick says. We
Care performs procedures similar to any dental office – Xrays,
dental exams, periodontal probing, cleaning, debriding,
root planing, root canal treatment and build up of
dentition. The clinic also provides some restorative and
Serving the Coachella Valley, the clinic treats children,
adults and the elderly with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral
palsy, epilepsy, mental retardation, muscular sclerosis,
bi-polar and brain damage.
“We don’t have to find patients.” Glick says. “They
seem to find us.” Since such a practice model is fairly rare,
word of We Care got out to the disabled community very
quickly via referrals and the local dental societies. “We find
that our demographic population will drive hours to receive
dental treatment for family and loved ones,” Glick notes.
Unfortunately, many of these patients cannot afford to
pay for the care they receive. The money they earn goes
toward covering their immediate living expenses, and dental
insurance is rare. For this reason, most services provided
by the clinic are provided at no charge to the
patient. Since all nonprofit organizations are competing
for the same dollar in this economic time, it is difficult for
the center to attain the needed funds. Glick says most of
its funds are obtained through fundraisers as well as grants
from various private and governmental agencies.
We Care is looking for volunteer dentists, hygienists,
dental assistants, and any other people or organizations
willing to help. All you have to do is call and sign up. If
you are interested in helping, call 760-565-6055 or email
email@example.com. The We Care Dental Center is
located at 42-900 Bob Hope Drive, Suite 111 in Rancho