When Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston and caused massive flooding during the last week of August, an estimated 10,000 people took shelter with the Red Cross at the George R. Brown Convention Center. UTHealth School of Dentistry joined the relief effort by taking the school’s mobile dental van to the convention center to provide emergency dental care.

Over the next five days, volunteers treated nearly 100 patients who would otherwise have gone without dental care, and the school continues to help by treating shelter evacuees brought to its Urgent Care Clinic. 

“Most of the patients needed extraction of non-restorable teeth due to caries or pain, occasionally with swelling and infection as well,” said Professor Kamal Busaidy, B.D.S., of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the School of Dentistry.

He and several students went to the convention center individually to volunteer early in the week and saw that the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) had established a triage and emergency treatment area, but had no dental services.

“Our faculty and students who were in the GRB immediately established a dental triage area, while arrangements were made to bring in the dental van,” Busaidy said. “It was already apparent that multiple patients were in need of urgent dental care.”

With the support of Dean John Valenza, D.D.S., and Associate Dean for Patient Care Kim Ruona, D.D.S., Busaidy and Community Outreach Director Margo Melchor, R.D.H., Ed.D., organized the school’s response to the storm. Dental and dental hygiene students and staff helped with registration and assisting at chairside.  Dental students participated in triage, while oral and maxillofacial surgery residents provided surgical treatment, with faculty supervision.

The day before the dental van went into service, volunteers at the School of Dentistry stuffed toothbrushes and toothpaste into more than 5,000 gift bags that Melchor then delivered to the GRB.

The number of evacuees at the convention center has dropped dramatically, with fewer than 2,000 still sheltering there on Sept. 6. The dental van is no longer on site, but the Red Cross arranges transportation to the School of Dentistry’s Urgent Care Clinic for any evacuees who have oral pain. A shelter at NRG Center is handling dental emergencies the same way.

Busaidy and Melchor said they were impressed with the quick and efficient way the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team set up operations at the GRB. In turn, the team was very appreciative to have dental services on site.

"The DMAT supervisor told me it was the first time they’ve ever been to a shelter where dental services were provided, and they were very impressed that we were there to help with those needs,” Melchor said. “Some of the evacuees are underserved or homeless, and when they come to a shelter with oral pain, usually the medical team can’t do anything for them.”

Busaidy, an oral surgeon, recalled one patient at the GRB who had lost all his possession in the flood, including his medications.

“He presented with an abscess from infected teeth, so we drained the infection, removed several offending teeth and gave him analgesics and comforting words before sending him to the medical team for replacement medications. He was very appreciative and commented on how unexpected it was that so many people were taking such good care of him.” Busaidy said. “He was typical of the patients we saw.”

Busaidy and Melchor both expressed appreciation to the School of Dentistry faculty, staff, students and residents who made the mission possible by volunteering their services.

“The speed with which the School of Dentistry responded to this disaster, and the quality of care delivered, are testament to the spirit and compassion within the hearts of our faculty, staff and students,” Busaidy said. “Those few days at the GRB exemplified what is best about Houston, about dentists, and about UTHealth. I am so honored to count myself among the School of Dentistry family.”