WTFC needs dental volunteers

Published 7:51 pm Thursday, July 11, 2013

By Dr. Ralph Howell

Much has been written lately about the Affordable Care Act, and there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the anticipated changes in healthcare. However, it is certain that one missing element in the Act will be dental care for the adult population.

In 2010, the Western Tidewater Free Clinic expanded its scope to better fulfill its mission to “provide high-quality, non-emergency health care to the residents of Western Tidewater who cannot otherwise afford it” and opened a two-chair dental clinic.


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With 95 percent of the clinic’s patients suffering from some form of chronic illness, including diabetes (a risk factor for periodontal disease), it was apparent that dental services are required in order to fully address patients’ needs. Shortly after opening, the impact the dental clinic could have on someone’s life became very clear.

Here is one patient’s story:

In November 2010, a 58-year-old woman presented to the clinic with a horrific blister on her cheek. The cause of the blister turned out to be a dental infection, also known as an abscess. Essentially, this abscess had eaten through her gum wall and was draining outside her cheek.

Abscesses are potentially very serious, even fatal, due to the ability of the infection to enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart, brain or other organs.

Medical personnel notified the dental clinic of the situation. The volunteer dentist on staff that day was equally shocked by the severity of the abscess and determined that an immediate procedure was required to remove the root tips causing the infection.

The situation was explained to the patient, and the infected roots were surgically removed. While the dentist and his assistant worked diligently, another assistant held the patient’s hand.

During this time, the woman remained silent; however, two tears were noticed to trickle down her cheeks. She told them later that the tears were “because no one had ever cared for me so much.”

This patient’s story may be extreme, but the impact proper dental care has on an individual’s health cannot be overstated. The Virginia Health Care Foundation recognized this and in 2012 provided WTFC with a grant to hire a dentist and dental assistant for 16 hours per week.

The addition of these staff members, along with hard-working volunteers, resulted in a 125-percent increase in the number of patient appointments. By the end of 2012, 563 patients had received care through 1,835 visits.

Even with this substantial increase, there is still a large unmet need for dental care, and more dental volunteers are needed at the clinic. Both dentists and hygienists are in high demand and, without enough volunteers, appointments are limited.

The services volunteers provide influence the lives of the uninsured more than most of us can fully comprehend. Heart disease, diabetes and many chronic diseases are all made much worse by untreated dental disease. As a volunteer, you can give the gift of not just a healthy smile, but of health and a smile.

If you are a dental professional, please consider becoming a WTFC Clinic volunteer. One person — even one hour — can make a difference.

Dr. Ralph Howell of R.L. Howell, D.D.S. & Associates is vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Virginia Health Care Foundation. He and his associates have volunteered at Western Tidewater Free Clinic since the opening of the dental clinic.