A Fix for New York Smiles
|Harold, an 88-year-old World War II veteran, lives alone in Manhattan. Relying on a small fixed income, he had not seen a dentist in 10 years. Eating had become difficult and painful and he was limited to soft foods. Volunteer Dr. Greta Richter restored his ability to chew by extracting several decaying teeth and fitting him with dentures.|
A smile is priceless, but for too many New Yorkers, a healthy one is prohibitively expensive. The chronic pain and embarrassment of not having a functional set of teeth can affect nutrition, job opportunities, and confidence, and lead to serious health problems. But dental care is rarely covered by insurance—public or private—and so people go for years without needed repairs. “Medicare does not cover dental care, even though elders have higher levels of tooth and gum disease than younger adults,” says Irfan Hasan, program officer at The Trust. “And Medicaid is taken by only a quarter of the dentists in New York.”
Since 2007,Dental Lifeline Network New York has been running a program to help elderly and disabled patients in need of serious dental work. Often providing $5,000 to $10,000 of free care to each patient, Network dentists fix bridges, drill root canals, put in implants, and make people smile—after the Novocain wears off. Replacement teeth and other materials are donated by manufacturers recruited through the Network.
“I believe that to be a true professional, one should be giving back to society,” says former president of the New York Academy of Dentistry, Tom Connolly. “I have found this to be one of the most rewarding ways to do that. I treat periodontal disease and provide dental implants. My oldest daughter is also a periodontist and volunteers with the program.” In addition to getting his family involved, Dr. Connolly has recruited colleagues to volunteer and encourages everyone to tell their dentists about the program.
The program’s coordinator, Caroline Montero, helps recruit dentists, determines the needs of patients, and refers them for treatment. “We are all about trying to get our clients as much care as possible. Many of them feel like they won the dental lotto.”
The results are life-changing. Katie Jackson of Brooklyn couldn’t chew without pain and wasn’t eating well. After treatment, she felt like a new woman. “I love my new smile; I can open my mouth and speak without embarrassment,” she said after getting treatment. “Now when I play with my grandchildren I can smile without any hesitation.”
Last year, 70 volunteer dentists treated 92 disabled and 118 elderly patients. This year, with a $40,000 grant, the Network will treat even more.