Mon County Health Department gives kids something to smile about

Feb. 3—MORGANTOWN — Tiffany Summerlin, registered dental hygienist, bends over Gael Garcia, one of the children present for Monongalia County Health Department's Give Kids a Smile! event at its dentistry office.

His mother, Llorleni Garcia, stands out in the hallway. They are uninsured. Llorleni immigrated to the country two years ago from Nicaragua. She does not speak English, and works through a translator to speak to Summerlin.

"I brought him for a cleaning," Garcia said. "I also wanted to ask some questions, his gums are inflamed, and there's been a bit of color change."

Summerlin is used to seeing patients like Gael and his mother, who are among the numbers of patients who do not have traditional access to care. With help from the American Dental Association, which sponsored the event, Summerlin said MCHD is well poised to help those who are uninsured.

Summerlin works a small dental device into Gael's mouth. It must be uncomfortable, because a few moments later, Summerlin acknowledges discomfort can accompany the procedure she's doing. Gael, however, lounges in the dental chair with a pair of sunglasses on, looking like a jazz icon who's too cool for pain.

"Dental care is very essential to overall health," Summerlin said. "Especially with kids. There's a lot of kids that have chronic pain and that's all they know. A lot of times when I go into schools and see kids that may have behavior issues, sometimes that is due to them being in pain and they can't concentrate.

"They're not sleeping at night. They have an active infection that does not feel good. It's great to be able to step in and be a hinge to change what their future looks like."

Youseph Kassar, MCHD's program director and dentist, said Give Kids a Smile is an annual event, conducted at the beginning of each year. It's one of three community events focused on dental care, the other two happen later in the year on Veterans Day and before Thanksgiving. However, dental emergencies don't follow MCHD's event calendar, which is why Kassar explained that the health department's dentistry office is willing to work with patients the best they can.

"We don't want people suffering if we can help them," Kassar said. "Even if it's outside of those days, we'd always love them to call us and see what we can do for them."

Returning to the subject of youth dental care, Kassar said education from a young age on about proper dental hygiene is important. One area, baby teeth, is the subject of a major misconception. Kassar said that parents wrongly assume that just because baby teeth fall out, they don't need to be cared for. However, the reality is that baby teeth are really important for the development of teeth, the mouth and the face.

"If someone has multiple cavities and those turn infectious, they become life ending things," he said. "A lot of time people downplay the importance of dental health care to where, yeah these are baby teeth but they also get their adult teeth as young as six, so those really need to be taken care of to have a life long healthy smile."

Kassar and his staff spent the rest of the event mostly filling cavities and educating patients. For patients like the Garcias, Kassar said MCHD works with translators who help bridge the language divide so parents who don't speak English still get the information they need to safeguard the dental health of their children. It also spurs Kassar to work on his own Spanish, which is in need of practice.

"I know a little bit, like open and close, all the good staff," he said. "We have ways to get people translators if needed."

Summerlin is also the coordinator for Smile Express, the mobile dental clinic operated by MCHD. It primarily serves patients who are on Medicaid, as well as uninsured individuals. The goal of the mobile clinic is to provide dental care to people who don't have a dental home.

"We define a dental home as somebody who pretty much goes every year," she said. "Ideally we want them to come every six months and have a cleaning, but if you haven't been to a dentist in a year, you don't really have a dental home."

Having a dental home is crucial because without one, getting a same day appointment for a broken tooth can be next to impossible.

Give Kids a Smile! Is a fan favorite event among MCHD's dental staff.

"It's really a fun event for all of us here," Kassar said. "We love putting up streamers, these pompoms and giving out all the prizes to the kids. I think for the most part, parents are very appreciative. We look forward to it every year."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com