BALOG COLUMN: Dental clinic serves critical need
It’s Wednesday night, and the Charleston Dental Clinic on East Bay Street is full with three patients in dental chairs and three more in the waiting room.
Jeffrey Barzyk, a first-year periodontist resident at MUSC, and Jessie Suggs, a third-year dental student, are getting ready to extract a painful tooth from Crystal Alexander’s mouth.
It’s Barzyk’s first night at the clinic. He hopes it won’t be his last.
But that depends on whether the clinic can raise enough money to keep going.
“I always tell people on the way up in the elevator: They will be friends by the time they leave here, and they will not be in any pain,” said Nancy Small, the clinic’s part-time administrator and dental assistant.
Alexander said without the clinic, she’d have no choice but to live with her toothache.
“I don’t have any money,” said Alexander. “This is a lot of help.”
History of service
The building at 729 East Bay has a long medical history; it was a Confederate hospital during the Civil War.
In 2000 it was renovated in preparation to provide legal services, day care, dental care and a community center.
But the clinic — then, as now — didn’t have enough money to keep operating, so the fully furnished fourth floor sat vacant. That is, until Dick Moss, dentist Lee Hershon and other members of Grace Episcopal Church came along in 2010. They set about the business of securing funding from the church, donors and grants, and the clinic reopened in April 2011. There are 15 dentists who volunteer on a rotating basis.
Meeting the need
John Hogan is one of the patients on this night, reclined in the chair, waiting for the dentist to finish on Alexander. Hogan, like many patients, was referred to the clinic from Crisis Ministries.
“It’s probably five years since I’ve been to the dentist,” Hogan said. “I hope y’all don’t have to close this down.”
It’s not the only dental clinic for the uninsured and underserved.
Moss and Small are quick to sing the praises of ECCO’s clinic east of the Cooper, a clinic on Johns Island funded by the Sisters of Mercy, as well as two in North Charleston, but they’re the only ones serving Charleston’s downtown area. The location, near the entrance to the Ravenel Bridge, is convenient for folks to get here on foot or on the bus.
Two nights a week, two MUSC dental students and a volunteer dentist extract problem teeth from as many patients as they can treat, generally six to 12 a night, who have nowhere else to turn for help.
Healthy mouth, body
According to the Mayo Clinic, if your mouth is healthy, you’re likely to be healthy too. The mouth is the literal gateway to the body, so if everything’s clean and bacteria are under control, then it’s not making its way to the rest of you.
That’s why this is so important.
Poor dental health is linked to other health problems, including osteoporosis, infections in the lining around the heart, or cardiovascular disease.
“Every patient that comes in here needs their teeth cleaned,” Small said. They don’t have the capacity to offer anything but emergency services, at least right now, so they send patients to Trident Tech for teeth cleaning.
And that’s why Moss feels so strongly about taking the service to the schools, to start good oral hygiene habits early, so today’s elementary students don’t have to become tomorrow’s emergency extraction patients.
They might hear back about the grant by April or May, but you can’t use prayer as a down payment for dental supplies, so they have a bit of a problem.
“At this point, it’s a week-to-week basis.” Moss said.
They could use some help with their grant writing. Moss, a real estate developer, has been learning on the job.
But of course, they need what everybody else needs: money to operate — in this case, quite literally.
There was a grant. Clinic leaders were under the impression it would be renewed for two more years, but apparently the foundation folks didn’t see it the same way, and the clinic received notice that there wouldn’t be more money, at least, not right now.
They need $25,000 to $50,000 to keep offering the same services they’re providing now.
In addition to going into the schools, they’d like to be able to offer cleanings and other preventive and restorative services.
To do all those things would require a full-time dentist and a full-time dental assistant/administrator, and opening two more days a week.
Moss knows they’re not there yet, and that’s OK.
The volunteers and the patients just want to make sure the clinic can open on Tuesday.
Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@post andcourier.com.