God’s hand was at work in Page, Arizona, United States, through a group of dedicated volunteers who facilitated 300 procedures during a free dental clinic hosted at the Page All Nations Seventh-day Adventist Church, September 23-25, 2019.
During the three-day clinic, approximately US$200,000 of dental procedures and US$30,000 of dermatology services were given at no cost to more than 140 people.
The volunteer team included seven dentists, one dental hygienist, nine dental assistants, a board-certified dermatologist, a family practice physician, and two massage therapists. Fifty-five additional volunteers managed registration, sterilized equipment, offered counseling, and provided other related activities.
Services and procedures included teeth cleaning, check-ups, fillings, and extractions while using well-equipped dental chairs, mobile X-rays, e-imaging, and other dental-related services. The dermatologist performed skin checks and minor dermatological procedures on 40 patients, and the family practice physician provided preventive care screenings and counseling.
Of the treated patients, more than 90 percent were members of the Navajo Nation. A few Hopi and Zuni tribal members also participated, as well as several non-native community members. A high percentage reported that they had diabetes, pre-diabetes, and heart disease, which are known risk factors linked to poor oral health.
Putting the Clinic Together
The project volunteers were provided by “F5,” a unique young professional Christian group created by dentist Calvin Kim. Kim met with Nancy Crosby, director of Native American Ministries for the Pacific Union church region, to share the idea of holding a free dental clinic. Through a series of events and much prayer, each detail fell into place.
The clinic was coordinated and organized by the Life and Health Network led by Danny Kwon, who has extensive experience operating free clinics worldwide, and Vinh Trinh, a paramedic and pre-dental student who has worked alongside Kwon with the free clinics. Caring Hands Worldwide, a mobile non-profit clinic from Eugene, Oregon, provided the dental equipment, together with its executive director, Randy Meyer. American Indian Living magazine funded the tent under which the services were performed, as well as portable toilets and other miscellaneous items.
The tent was packed with patients each day, many of whom had multiple procedures done. The patients had the opportunity to meet with the pastor of Page All Nations and its Bible worker. Interest was generated for church services, and there were approximately 40 Bible study requests.
In addition, a group of licensed contractors and painters among the volunteers replaced the roof of the Page All Nations church’s building and parsonage. They also repainted the church’s exterior.
Many people traveled from hours away to attend the dental clinic due to the scarcity of dental services on reservations. Although the patients seemed nervous and distrustful when they first arrived, smiles began to break out as people left the tent with their needs met.
One Navajo grandmother remarked, “This is some of the best dental care I have ever received. Not only did they do x-rays and clean my teeth, but they also filled three cavities and replaced a crown.”
A young Navajo father said, “I have always been afraid of dentists. These dentists are so kind. It is the first time I have seen a dentist in five years. They filled one cavity and then showed me better ways to brush and floss to prevent future cavities.”
“I felt respected. I have been embarrassed about my teeth,” said a middle-aged Navajo woman. “I knew I had something wrong. I had pain. [Turns out] I had cavities in several areas of my mouth. They filled some of the cavities one day and then the rest the next day.”
One woman’s story highlights the multiple challenges faced by many elderly members of the Navajo Nation. They often have to wait up to two years to be seen at a dental clinic that is located off the reservation and difficult to travel to. Clinics on the reservation are often too expensive. Further, many patients at the clinic said preventative oral hygiene techniques are not explained clearly to help prevent tooth decay or extractions.
“I have three relatives in their early fifties who already have dentures and four who have had many of their teeth pulled and will soon need dentures. I was also worried I might eventually need dentures. I have already had three teeth pulled,” Asdza* said. “Thankfully, my toothaches were only from cavities and were fixed today. I won’t need a root canal. And the dentist showed me how to floss better so that I will never need dentures.”
Early childhood caries, or cavities, are the most common health problem for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) preschool children, and five times more common than asthma, according to an oral health study by the Indian Health Service. The same study shows that when compared to other population groups in the United States, AI/AN preschool children have the highest level of tooth decay. Further, children of the Navajo Nation have one of the lowest dentist-to-patient ratios in the country, according to a 2014 study by the Colorado School of Public Health.
To help address the effects of the startling statistics, Kim and another volunteer dentist went to a local elementary school on September 24 to share information about oral health and hygiene. The dentists presented to 183 second-graders at Lakeview Elementary School, where its staff said it was the best oral health presentation the school has received.
*Asdza is a pseudonym, which was given upon request, and means “woman” in the Navajo language.