At the intersection of Third Avenue and Cremona Street in front of Seattle Pacific University, Husky Health Bridge (HHB) held its monthly dental clinic last Saturday from a bright red Medical Teams International van. Since the first clinic last February, HHB has followed Tent City 3 through its shifting host locations to provide residents ongoing dental care.
“We know if we take care of a patient and there’s more care that’s needed, maybe we’ll be able to see them again next month,” Cindy Roat from Greater Seattle Cares, a partner organization, said. “It has created a lot of stability in the type of care provided, plus just more frequent care which has really helped us get through the worst of the dental problems and then help with problems that might not be as urgent.”
At these monthly clinics, the dental students face a spectrum of cases from general cleanings to more extraordinary cases, all overseen by Dr. Susanne Jeffrey, who has been the mentor of HHB since last February.
“This is more real life, and they learn dentistry is an art,” Jeffrey said. “Nothing is planned. You need to be creative, and it’s more of the old-fashioned dentistry with private practitioners developing their skills that they are doing here under supervision.”
This month was unique as it was helmed by fourth-year dental student volunteers from the UW School of Dentistry. The higher skill level was brought in anticipation of two residents who were scheduled for major extractions. Though neither of the two patients could ultimately be seen that day, HHB took it in easy stride, opening the clinic to any residents who wanted to be treated.
“There are many times when we have expectations that so-and-so is going to come in and they’re going to get a full mouth extraction and complete dentures delivered and all this,” director of HHB and second-year dental student Jessica Latimer said. “We anticipate it, we prepare, we bring extra supplies, and then they don’t show up, but there’s lots of reasons for that. It’s not always the reason that you suspect. There’s so many barriers to care when you’re working with homeless populations.”
Through their outreach work, HHB attempts to bridge a system that otherwise denies even a minimal quality of life to homeless people. Although most of the Tent City 3 residents have Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid pays so poorly that few dentists are willing to accept it. The monthly dental clinics allows these residents to get the baseline care for which their insurance doesn’t cover.
“It’s obviously not the ideal situation because we’re working in a van; we don’t have all the fancy high-tech equipment, we don’t have laughing gas, nitrous oxide, and we don’t have fancy TVs, but at least we got the patient out of pain. That’s kind of the priority,” fourth-year dental student volunteer Sumit Makker said. “It’s just little things like this go a long way.”
The structural marginalization of homeless populations necessitate the kind of outreach HHB offers, yet also speaks to the hearts of these dental students who proactively give back and strive beyond for their community.
“I had my training from Sweden and in Sweden, everyone has dental and medical insurance for life, so it’s ingrained in your citizenship,” said Jeffrey. “You don’t have a need for outreach, but that also means your heart doesn’t care for other people in the same way. I always wanted to use my professional training for something good and here in the United States, I can do it.”
The clinic lasted from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and HHB donated a total of $4,526 of treatment.