WISE, Va (WDBJ) – A new program in far southwest Virginia is working to get dental care to people in the community who are desperate for it. With costs too high and providers too few, health care teams there say change is needed.
At Wise’s Health Wagon, it’s coming in the form of a new dental clinic.
Friday, the Health Wagon team, plus community partners and leaders, broke ground on the site adjacent to the existing Smiddy Clinic, where a new 10-chair dental clinic will be built.
“I could actually cry; I mean, this is a dream come true,” said Health Wagon CEO Dr. Teresa Owens Tyson.
She said soon, her team will be able to provide dental care to her community 365 days a year. They’re trying to meet a need they see every time they offer services at outreach events.
“People would sometimes come up and line up a week in advance for healthcare. They would camp out in their cars. They would hitchhike here,” she said. “I have seen them fly in on frequent flier miles to our event to get dental care.”
Dr. Tyson said she has seen and heard many times over just how badly dental care is needed in her community.
“In our previous dental clinics there was a little boy,” she explained. “And he was 7 years old. And he was in the dental chair at one of our events and he looked up at one of our dentists and he said, ‘If i start to cry, whatever you do, don’t stop. I’m in so much pain.’ There’s so many people out there suffering needlessly.”
Currently, the Health Wagon’s standalone clinic has one dental chair and a hygienist who can see as many as 50 patients a week. The same number is seen weekly by Dr. Olivia Stallard, the Health Wagon’s staff dentist.
“You know a lot of our people in our community have never been to the dentist or they’re not able to afford the dentist,” she said. “It’s what I call a dental desert.”
Stallard works in a two-chair trailer parked alongside the clinic, on loan from Appalachia Miles for Smiles.
The dentist returned home to Wise two years ago after completing dental school in Florida.
Most of the teeth she sees are too far gone to save, her resources too limited to replace them.
The pandemic didn’t help.
“We’re hoping to bridge that gap and spread oral education for people,” she said. “So they don’t wait ‘til it’s too late.”
She said with the new dental clinic, she’ll be able to offer more services and more technology, like 3-D printed dentures. Logistics are still being worked out, but she and Tyson say no one who really needs care will be turned away. They’re working off donations and grants, like ones secured with the help of US Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (both D-VA). They spoke at the even via a recorded video message, along with Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-9) and other local delegates.
Slated to open as early as this fall, the clinic will also integrate graduates from Lincoln Memorial University’s new dental college.
Dean Denise Terese Koch said at the groundbreaking in 2020 she was hired by the university to establish the college. Hygienists from the program will begin working with the Health Wagon in 2023. Dentists will come in 2024.
For Stallard, the mission goes beyond fixing teeth. She’s out to repair lives.
“We’ll be able to do dentures, we’ll be able to do crowns,” she said. “We’ll be able to send people out of there with their lives completely transformed because a smile will do that.”
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