The Appalachia region of the U.S. has one of the worst dental health problems in the nation, with Kentucky ranking third among states with the highest rate of tooth loss.
Dr. Edwin Smith, a dentist and Kentucky native, decided to do something about it, reports CNN.
As a young dentist, "I saw a lot of patients who hadn't seen a dentist before," Smith explains, noting that he encountered many patients with rampant tooth decay. He saw patients who had tried to pull out their teeth with pliers, superglued their teeth back onto their gums, and were sick from chronic infection.
What disturbed Smith the most was that many of these patients were children. "I would see a lot of kids who had a mouth full of rotting teeth," he said. "They were in pain, and they'd be hurting at school."
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In 2005, in response to the dental crises he had witnessed, Smith took a page from the free clinic movement that began in the 1960s, converting a trailer into a mobile clinic so he could bring free dental care to children in need.
“We wanted to help kids access preventative dental care, so we turned a trailer into a mobile dental clinic,” he explains. “At first we went to a couple schools. Then other schools around the county started asking us if we could come to see them. In a couple years, we had school districts all around Kentucky asking us to come and see their students.”
He set up a nonprofit organization, Kids First Dental Services, and in the past decade has treated more than 43,000 children throughout Kentucky.
Regarding the state of dental health in Appalachia, Smith notes that poverty is an obvious cause, because there’s “not a lot of economic opportunity with jobs.” However, “the number one issue is education,” he says. “When I first started practicing, I would see babies being fed bottles filled with sugary drinks. Also, many people can't afford to get treatment done, and many of these families don't have the transportation that they need to access it.”
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Tradition is also a factor, he observes. “People have been poor here in the past, and they didn't have means for taking care of their teeth. People have that fatalistic notion that, ‘If my parents lost their teeth early, I'm going to lose mine anyway. So what's the point in getting them fixed?' People let their teeth go. That's why it is so important to educate the kids. If you teach them early on, they'll take better care of their teeth and won't have these problems later on in life.”
Kids First Dental Services provides free checkups for kids, including teeth cleaning, X-rays when needed, fluoride treatment and a treatment plan of any other needs that cannot be performed in the mobile clinic.
“I've had people get up out of their chair, look in the mirror, and cry,” explains Dr. Smith. “People who, before, wouldn't even let you see their teeth, and now they've got these big, wide smiles. That's one of the most rewarding things.”
Sources: CNN, National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics / Photo credit: CNN