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Give Kids a Smile Day: Priceless Experience for All

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 4:14pm

Joslynn Ramirez is all smiles after being treated at UTSD's Give Kids a Smile Day.

Joslynn Ramirez was one of nearly 150 children treated free at Give Kids a Smile Day Feb. 8 at UT School of Dentistry. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews.

Nearly 150 youngsters received free dental care at The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, thanks to more than 200 volunteers who pitched in for Give Kids a Smile Day on Feb. 8.

The annual event gives low-income or uninsured children access to much-needed dental care provided by senior dental and dental hygiene students under faculty supervision.

With financial support from the Susman Family Foundation and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Houston/Galveston, UTSD provided treatments such as dental cleanings, fillings, extractions, sealants and stainless steel crowns. The estimated value of the care provided at the event topped $71,000, said UTSD Community Outreach Director Margo Melchor, RDH, MEd.   

Overall, about 175 School of Dentistry students, faculty and staff participated, along with more than 40 volunteers, including outside dental professionals and students from UTHealth School of Nursing and pre-dental student associations at the University of Houston and Rice University.

The patients were chosen with help from Communities in Schools - Houston (CIS), a nonprofit group that works with disadvantaged children – and by the San Jose Clinic, a Catholic charity providing health care to Houston’s needy.

UTSD began participating in Give Kids a Smile Day 2004 in observance of February as National Children’s Dental Health Month. This is the first year the event was held in the school’s new building with state-of-the-art clinical facilities.

Most of the children come from poor immigrant families – often undocumented – and their parents do not speak English, said Tony Martinez, director of dental services for CIS.

The legwork for the big day actually began weeks earlier when pediatric dentistry residents from UTSD took the school’s mobile dental van to three elementary schools and the San Jose Clinic to screen patients. About 180 children were examined and radiographed to determine what procedures they needed.

Many children had more extensive dental needs than could be fixed in a single day, so treatment decisions had to be prioritized, said Urvi Jadav, a pediatric resident who helped screen the children. Knowing that these children would not likely see a dentist again anytime soon also informed their treatment plans, she added.

“We wanted to provide definitive tooth restorations,” Jadav said. 

With so many children coming to the clinic on the same day – and many of them nervous about seeing a dentist – keeping order is essential, said Laji James, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Houston and one of the day’s volunteers.

Crying can spread with large groups of young kids, said James, a veteran of charity dentistry events, so one of the main challenges in treating children is to keep them calm and dispel their fears. 

This includes explaining to the child what is happening by speaking on their level and replacing dental terminology with kid-friendly terms. For example, the suction tube becomes “Mr. Thirsty” and the drill becomes “Mr. Whistle.”

It is especially important for young children to have positive experiences so they do not fear dental visits later in life, James said.

Tony Martinez from Communities in Schools Houston shepherds volunteers and patients back to the bus after treatment.

Tony Martinez and Donna Smedick of Communities in Schools - Houston helped UTSD identify children who needed dental care that could be done in a day. They came to UTSD by bus. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews.

For 8-year old Benjamin Sanchez, overcoming that fear was not easy. Terrified of getting his teeth worked on, he cried on the bus ride to UTSD and then started crying again when he was in the dentist’s chair.

Gary Badger, DDS, MS, chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry and a former practitioner with decades of experience, was summoned. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna take good care of you,” Badger told the anxious third-grader. 

After some more soothing words Sanchez calmed down, and after the procedure was finished, he even hugged Badger.

“We wear pajamas all day, we help kids and at the end they give us a hug,” Badger said. “Pediatric dentistry is such a great specialty.”

If reassuring words don’t work to keep a child happy while in the dentist’s chair, there are always Disney channel clips on YouTube or other diversions, courtesy of the large video screens in each of the treatment bays.

Pranov Mody, a fourth-year dental student, tried a more subtle way of keeping his patient – 9-year old Luis – composed during while getting a couple of cavities filled and a tooth extracted.

“He was a huge Texans fan, so I told him to act like J.J. Watt, and we didn’t have any problems,” Mody said.

Besides clean teeth and filled cavities, the children also walked away with new toothbrushes and oral health educational materials.

“There are a lot of kids not getting care and missing school because of dental pain,” Melchor said. “The need out there is tremendous, and our students are very conscientious about community outreach.” 

Aaron Menchaca, a third-year dental student and aspiring pediatric dentist, is no stranger to helping the disadvantaged. He volunteers at the San Jose Clinic and was eager to help with Give Kids a Smile.

“Kids are more fun to work with, and so many are in desperate need,” Menchaca said. 

For James, the pediatric dentist who volunteered for the day, motivation for his hard work also comes from another source:  his mother.

“When I became a dentist, my mother told me it was my duty as a health-care professional to do a lot of volunteer work,” James said.

For Give Kids a Smile, James was tasked with examining some 20 children who had been invited to the event and but not been screened beforehand. An experienced pediatric practitioner, he can quickly examine youngsters, assess their greatest needs and determine a treatment plan.

That sort of quick thinking will come in handy next year when UTSD hosts a much larger-scale charity project.

Together with the Texas Dental Association, the Greater Houston Dental Society and the Greater Houston Dental Hygienist’s Society, the school will host a Texas Mission of Mercy – Give Kids a Smile event that will involve more volunteers and many more patients receiving free care.