Free dental clinic for kids draws participants – and their smiles – from around the region7 min read
Ann Arbor, Mich., April 11, 2022 – The friendly banter between School of Dentistry students and their young patients was non-stop and lively Saturday when the annual “Give Kids a Smile” clinic made its post-pandemic return after two years off.
Nearly 90 children ages 4-14 from communities in and around Washtenaw County were brought by their parents and guardians to the dental school for free dental exams and basic oral healthcare. The community service project was staffed by about 150 volunteer dental students, dental hygiene students, faculty and staff.
Dental and hygiene students, under the supervision of faculty, performed basic treatments such as exams, cleanings, x-rays, fluoride and silver diamine applications, sealants, fillings and an occasional extraction. Any serious problems that were discovered were referred to the family dentist or other specialists.
The intent of “Give Kids a Smile” goes beyond providing dental care. It also focuses on oral health education and making the children feel comfortable in a dental chair and while interacting with a dentist. The consistent message delivered to the children on Saturday was that taking care of your teeth is important, brushing and flossing are fun, and dentist appointments aren’t anything to be afraid of.
However, when you are 4- or 5-years-old that message may not overcome the unfamiliarity of the setting. There were a few tears and some reluctance to sit in the dental chair on Saturday, but most of the hesitancy didn’t last long as parents and dental students coaxed the children through the process. Against a backdrop of clinic decorations themed to outer space and astronauts, dental students engaged the children in all manner of conversational topics, often as the child’s parent sat nearby for reassurance. The topics ranged from the arty design of the child’s shirt, their favorite subject in school, what sports they play, dance and violin lessons, their cool tennis shoes and, in a few cases, the awesome face paint design applied in the waiting room (a red spider web, ala movie star Spider-Man, was one of the choices.)
Kristine Foor of Saline brought her three sons to the clinic and she took turns checking on each as they sat in cubicles near each other while being treated by different dental students. She spent most of her time with her youngest, 5-year-old Nathaniel. At the beginning, he was more comfortable if Mom sat in the dental chair and he sat on her lap. Third-year dental student Rachel Teitelbaum spent her early interaction with him chatting about lots of topics other than dentistry before explaining that she was going to take a peek inside his mouth and check out his teeth, nothing to worry about.
Nathaniel slowly warmed up to her and eventually, when he later went to a different room for an x-ray, sat in the dental chair by himself. As the treatment advanced to some simple cleaning, the spinning brush on Teitelbaum’s hand instrument was a little too much and he reverted to the “Mom in the dental chair” option. Still, he cooperated and continued to chat with Teitelbaum as she finished the cleaning. “The clinic was very well run and I was very impressed with the students and doctors,” Foor said. “They were great with all three of my boys.”
Making a trip to the dentist office fun and the opposite of scary is part of the educational experience for dental students and one of the goals of the clinic, according to its organizing committee – third-year students Holly Rizzo and Joni Cheung and second-year student Tommy Lau (who spent part of the day dressed in a Buzz Lightyear costume).
“We saw the kids’ fear melt away and turn into excitement when they pointed at the space-themed decorations that we had hung in the hallway,” Rizzo said. “I felt humbled that we could provide that special experience for the kids, whether it was their first dental visit or 10th dental visit. Through leading and organizing this event, we as Michigan dental students experienced first-hand that our efforts can shape children’s perception of dentistry.”
Dr. Larry Salzmann, a Clinical Associate Professor and Clinic Director for Pediatric Dentistry who supervised treatment at the clinic, notes that dental caries is the most common noncommunicable disease, according to the World Health Organization, yet it is highly preventable. The expression that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is relevant to dental care for children and adults alike, he said.
“Helping educate these children and their parents about the importance of oral health helps prevent little problems turning into bigger problems or, more importantly, from even starting,” Salzmann said. “By identifying the children who had additional needs, we are able to refer them to our own pediatric dental clinics or offices near their homes to receive the proper care and get them back on the path to be cavity-free.”
The “Give Kids a Smile” community service event was started nationally by the American Dental Association in 2003 and is supported locally by the Michigan Dental Association and the Washtenaw District Dental Society.
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.