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Free clinic opens dental program

Vivian Brown had full health, dental and vision insurance when she got laid off last year. She was offered the opportunity to keep her insurance, but says it was too expensive. Her healthcare fell by the wayside until a friend told her about the Western Tidewater Free Clinic.

“It has been a godsend,” Brown said, as she sat in a dentists’ chair at the clinic.

Brown is one of the first patients in the clinic’s new dental program, which helps ensure its patients can receive the full spectrum of health care. The first dental patients were seen last week, and already more than 30 patients have been treated. Some were in their late 50s and had never been to a dentist.

“Your health begins in your mouth,” said Pamela Witt, clinic coordinator at WTFC, noting how oral health issues can cause problems in other parts of the body, as well as vice versa.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

Miriam Beiler, executive director at the WTFC, said the dental component adds to the comprehensiveness of the program.

“I think it’s so important because we’re learning more and more how important oral health is to the whole body,” Beiler said.

The new dental program received donations from local dentists and discounts on expensive equipment, enabling them to have two dental chairs, X-ray machines and more.

“We were very fortunate to have some dentists donate equipment,” Witt said.

The clinic will be staffed by dental coordinator Joni Webber, as well as volunteer dentists and hygienists.

“It’s a way to give back,” said volunteer Dr. Milton Cook, who has a dental practice in Smithfield. “There are so many people who can’t get dental care. Every little bit helps.”

Cook has volunteered his dental skills for years, working with the Virginia Dental Association’s Mission of Mercy program. The program sets up dental clinics in underserved areas of the state, providing care to thousands of patients.

Volunteering at Western Tidewater Free Clinic, Cook said, is an opportunity to give back closer to home.

“You can come here in a day and do some good,” Cook said.

The dental program can provide most dental services to patients, Webber said. Cleanings, fillings and extractions can be done at the clinic.

Root canals, however, cannot be provided on site, because the equipment needed for them is so expensive, Webber said. The clinic is trying to find a doctor who is willing to do them for WTFC patients at his office, and also is seeking a denture lab to partner with.

People must be patients in the medical program before they can be seen in the dental program. To qualify, they must live in Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton County or Isle of Wight County; have no health insurance; have income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level; and be between the ages of 19 and 64.

As always, the clinic is seeking donations for all its programs.

“We’re so dependent on volunteer support,” Beiler said. “We always need time, dollars and supplies.”

For Brown, both the medical and dental programs at the clinic have provided her with new hope.

“On the day they told me I qualified, I actually cried,” Brown said. “They treat you as if you have insurance. I just sing their praises when I talk to people.”

For more information on the Western Tidewater Free Clinic, call 923-1060.