Dental Van Brings Much Needed Care to Rural Areas

A large van sits for three days in front of a San Augustine church. It's there to help people in pain. East Texans come to the 43 foot by 8 foot mobile dentist van wanting relief from toothaches. Some have had them for years. Others are too young to know anything different.

Dr. Tracey Godwin said, "Yesterday we saw two four-year old children. Both of them had more than one half their teeth decayed."

The severity of the cases is even alarming to dentists and dental students from Houston's University of Texas Health Center. 

"Mostly, when we're out here in East Texas, we're extracting teeth. The first time we came out here, in two days of treatment -- in two days full days of treatment -- we pulled 72 teeth, which is catastrophic," said Godwin.

Rosemary Lacey had seven teeth pulled. Eventually, all her lower teeth will be removed. They've embarrassed her for years.

Lacey said, with gauze in her mouth, "It keeps me from doing a lot of things I don't normally do because I'm a really outgoing person, okay, and I know people look at the way you look."

Patients are uninsured and on limited incomes. The East Texas Health Access Network (ETHAN)will pay most of the bill.

ETHAN community outreach advocate Irma Dowden said, "Let's say, under our bracket of 10%, if they get a tooth pulled, that's a value of $80. All it would cost them would be $8."

The dental van makes monthly stops in Jasper, Newton, Sabine, San Augustine, and Tyler counties. During a three day period, about 30 patients receive treatment.

Procedures are limited, so Lacey, like all patients, receives a lesson on dental hygiene.

"We can pull teeth and fill teeth all day long, but the only way to really make a difference is to prevent the problem from happening in the first place," said Godwin, as she watched a dental student demonstrate brushing and flossing techniques.

The goal is healthy smiles, something Lacey is looking forward to. Before leaving the fully equipped dental office, she gives the dental student a big hug. "This is my new best friend."

ETHAN can be reached at 409-384-2211 or   Satellite offices are in each county it serves.