PORTLAND, Maine — Organizers of a dental clinic for uninsured and low-income children in Portland say demand for the service is growing, and they are seeking more dentists willing to volunteer time to the effort to meet it.
City officials on Tuesday recognized the ongoing efforts of doctors Demi Kouzounas, Kathryn Horutz and Jeff Wallawender, who volunteer each month at the Bright Smiles clinic, and urged other dentists in the area to step forward to join them.
During the past school year, the three dentists — as well as a small team of dental hygienists and dentists’ assistants — donated nearly $12,500 worth of dental services at the clinic, which in that time also moved from a three-room city facility on Portland Street to a Brighton Avenue space more than double that size provided by Community Dental health center.
The clinic was launched six years ago after city health officials distributed a letter among area dentists asking for help treating children with no means to pay for their visits, and Kouzounas responded by volunteering to see the young patients at no cost once a month.
But Kathy Martin, the city’s children’s oral health program coordinator, said more volunteers are now needed to help fill that additional space and accommodate the rising number of children needing dental services.
Children needing root canals or other secondary procedures are discovered during regular in-school checkups conducted by hygienists throughout the school year.
“We identify kids in school who need follow-up work, and if they have MaineCare, we can usually find them a place to go,” Martin said. “But for the uninsured and low-income kids, this clinic is their only opportunity to get that work done. … These are children who don’t have a dentist or don’t have a way to get to a dentist or don’t understand English.”
Bright Smiles clinic coordinator Vanessa Woodward said the monthly operation, with its current number of volunteers, has the capacity to serve about 12 children each month. October’s clinic was scheduled to be open Tuesday night.
But Woodward said organizers are seeing more and more demand, specifically from asylum seekers attempting to immigrate to Portland from overseas.
“Just recently we’ve gotten quite a few families coming in who are seeking asylum, and they don’t have any medical coverage before they’re granted asylum,” Woodward said. “Several of the children that we have come to us with a dental infection already. They’re uninsured children and they don’t have the money to even be seen in the emergency room, so by providing this service it’s the only place they can be seen to get these problems dealt with.
“This provides the immediate care that they need, as well as the continuing care for that problem and whatever additional problems they may have,” she continued.
The regular preventative dental care in the schools and opportunity for follow-up procedures, when necessary, is important in helping the children stay focused in classes and keeping toothaches from escalating into larger, more expensive problems, Martin said.
“These infections can travel,” she said. “We have had one child who needed to be hospitalized … because an infection has grown so much.”
Woodward said the clinics have made city organizers, the dentists and their hygienists unusually popular in the schools for people of their professions.
“The kids will see us … out and about in schools, and they’re always so excited to see us,” Woodward said. “These children are in so much pain sometimes [that] when the work’s done and it’s completed, they act like a completely different child. And they look like it, too.”