Mobile dental clinic bringing relief to children who lack access to dental care

By Jessica Opoien of The Northwestern
May 24, 2012

OSHKOSH — The Tri-County Community Dental Clinic’s mobile dental clinic made its maiden voyage this week to Carl Traeger Elementary School.

The 39-foot, $779,000 dental bus, which was officially unveiled at a ceremony on Tuesday, provides free oral health services to underprivileged children and adults in Winnebago, Outagamie and Calumet counties. It will travel to community sites, including YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, this summer, and to schools in the fall as part of the clinic’s “Focus on the Children” program. The bus will serve as an extension of the clinic’s Appleton facility.

“It’s a much, much-needed service,” said Traeger principal Brenna Garrison-Bruden said.

Some children as far along as fourth grade in the Oshkosh school district have never been to a dentist, Garrison-Bruden said.

“I had a little first grader who did not know how to brush his teeth,” Garrison-Bruden said. “He had never been to the dentist. He was complaining that it hurt when he ate.”

The first-grader’s oral health was so degraded that he had to be referred to a hospital for sedation dentistry, during which he received seven crowns, several fillings and had several teeth pulled, she said, adding that his situation wasn’t an uncommon one.

“Think about what his mouth must have felt like all the time, and then try to picture learning,” Garrison-Bruden said. “How can you concentrate and focus on that if you’re in that kind of pain?”

The 2010 Winnebago County Community Health Improvement plan identified access to dental care as an important issue for the health and well being of area residents, and the 2011 United Way Life study showed that while access to dental care has improved and more children are being screened than in the past, the unmet need for dental care appears to surpass its availability for both children and adults.

The Tri-County Community Dental Clinic, through the mobile clinic and its clinic in Appleton seeks to bridge that gap.

Students whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are eligible for the clinic’s services. Schools send mailings home to all families, to let them know the service is available. Once eligible families express interest, school officials will follow up with them.

Garrison-Bruden has been part of several firsts with the clinic. The partnership between the school district and the clinic began in 2009 with a visit to Webster Stanley School, where Garrison-Bruden was principal at the time. In the first year, the clinic screened 390 Oshkosh students. In the second year, 570 children received services through the partnership. Because it was difficult for families to transport their children to the clinic in Appleton, the clinic started to offer a transportation service, picking up students and taking them to the clinic and back on a bus.

The clinic considered building a satellite office in Oshkosh, but it ultimately didn’t make sense to do it, said Tim Brown, a dentist on the clinic’s board of directors.

The concept of a mobile clinic was in the works for 18 months, and came to fruition following a $300,000 contribution from the J. J. Keller Foundation. The bus, built by ADI Mobile Health, features three dental chairs and digital and panographic X-ray machines. It is as fully equipped as a stationary dentist’s office, said Robert Chabalowski, a retired Menasha dentist who has volunteered with the clinic for about four years.

The clinic runs entirely on local, community donations, Chabalowski said. Bergstrom Automotive donated a minivan for staff to travel along with the bus, Lamers Bus Lines is providing maintenance and storage, and Heartland Business Systems is providing technical support. The mobile clinic also received significant donations from the John E. Kuenzl Foundation, Theda Clark Medical Center Foundation, Mielke Family Foundation, U.S. Venture, the Women’s Fund of Oshkosh and Oshkosh Corp.

The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation raised more than $250,000 toward the purchase and start-up costs, and will continue to raise money to replenish supplies and pay for fuel and maintenance as the bus serves the community.

While the biggest need is among children, the clinic also provides services to adults, Chabalowski said. When the clinic opened its doors in 2003, 25,000 people in Winnebago, Outagamie and Calumet counties were at or below the poverty level, according to the United Way Life study. Now, the number has increased to 85,000 people in the three counties.

Between the clinic’s inception in October 2003 and December 2011, its staff, volunteer dentists, hygienists and Marquette University dental students treated 33,674 patients in 55,168 oral health care visits. Officials expect the mobile clinic to treat about 3,000 patients annually.

The partnership between the clinic and the school district can have a positive impact by helping to make sure children see a dentist on a regular basis and providing them with education on how to maintain their oral health, Garrison-Bruden said.

“We are just so grateful for this partnership, so grateful for all of the donors that have made this possible,” Garrison-Bruden said. “It’s really making a very positive difference in the lives of kids and families.”