MACHIAS, Maine — Four-year-old Ryan Gatcomb-Goleniel, wearing flashy star-shaped sunglasses to protect him from the bright light, told New York University dental student Melissa Wilner that he thought he had five teeth.
“Oh, you have a lot more than that,” Wilner told him. Gatcomb-Goleniel was one of hundreds of adults and children visiting a free dental clinic Monday at the Lee Pellon Center in Machias. This is the third time that NYU College of Dentistry students have come to Machias to provide the free care for rural residents and they are expected to provide services to more than 1,000 patients this week.
In between the NYU visits, the Washington Hancock County Agency Tooth Ferry van makes visits to area schools for preventative care — services such as teaching children how to brush properly.
Susan Farley of WHCA said that access to dental care in Washington County is a challenge, “particularly for uninsured children, many of whom face lengthy waits to see the few area providers who do accept MaineCare,” she said.
Dr. Stuart Hirsch, head of NYU’s dentistry program, was moving quickly Monday, rushing to the side of any student who needed assistance, advice or encouragement. “Everyone wants to believe they are doing something good,” Hirsch said. “But this, this is a transforming experience for all the people who come, including us. We know we can make a difference in their health.”
The clinic is not intended to replace regular dental care, he explained, but rather serve those who do not have a dental provider.
Some of the services offered for Washington County children include examinations, sealants, fillings and extractions. Adults can also obtain X-rays, fillings, root canals, sealants and extractions.
Hirsch said a similar program in Hudson, N.Y., began four years ago. At the program’s beginning, 43 of every 100 children had tooth decay at a rate of 3.4 holes in teeth per child.
“Once we arrived, that rate dropped in one year to 15 of every 100 children with 1.2 teeth holes,” he said.
He hopes to see a similar improvement in the Washington County patients this week. “On the adult side, we will always have emergency care because there is nothing sustainable about what we do. We fix what hurts but the adults rarely if ever follow up with a local dentist,” he said.
But Hirsch is much more optimistic about the children he sees. “It is the children that become the key to me,” he said. Hirsch’s students examined hundreds of Head Start children ages 3-5 during last fall’s visit.
“Now, those children are 4 to 6 and we will be collecting more data at this visit,” he said. “I believe we will see dramatic changes [from our first visit.]”
NYU conducts up to 12 of these rural outreach programs a year. The Washington County clinic is the result of a unique partnership among local providers, such as the Washington County Children’s Program, the Washington Hancock Community Agency and Down East Community Hospital. The four-year program is in its second year, providing a fall and spring visit each year.
Organizers said it took tremendous coordination to bring the 15 students, doctors and equipment to Maine. A bus was rented for the students, and more than 1,500 pounds of supplies and equipment were transported to Machias.
The NYU group will return for follow-up care in April.
The clinic will be open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, at the Lee Pellon Center in Machias. MaineCare is accepted though not required. For more information, call the clinic at 271-7641.