Early risers lined up along North Pointe Boulevard in Mount Airy for Dentistry with a Heart, a no cost dental clinic for those in need sponsored by Dr. John L. Gravitte and Associates and held on Saturday, May 20.
Amanda Fretwell, marketing director for the office who was busy floating about and coordinating the volunteers, said that although only one patient camped out for a prime spot overnight, “We’ve had a great morning. We have been seeing a lot of extractions and a lot of patients needing fillings, and cleanings, and we have a great group of volunteers.”
Dentistry with a Heart is the offshoot of an early program Gravitte was holding she explained. That program was affiliated with a nationwide movement, but that ceased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The last such community program for Gravitte’s office was another effort he and his office puts on. “In the fall of 2019 Smiles for Freedom was our free dental day for veterans. Then the following year due to COVID, we couldn’t have the free dental day.”
Dr. Gravitte stopped in between patients to explain why the clinic matters. “There’s so much needed in our community, and I think more so now than ever. So, it was important to us to do it and bring it back as quickly as we could, but to make sure we’re doing it safe and responsibly and still try to impact as many people as we can.”
Dental work is pricey, he knows, saying, “It’s a challenge right now, it really is. Insurance companies still, even if you have dental insurance, are limited, and they haven’t raised the limits or maximum pay outs in a very long time.”
He added, “Extractions is what you see the most of, statistically you’ll see more folks that need teeth extracted than anything else. We still have some fillings, doing a lot of cleanings, those things, but a lot of the more urgent situations are folks that need teeth taken out.”
Fretwell said a platoon of volunteers were helping gather vital signs along with Lynn Snow, who oversees Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) at Mount Airy High, and a Spanish translator.
The screening at the door was for patient safety to ensure there would be no reactions, but for some it was a health screening they may have been overdue. “Some people may not know they have a medical issue, or have high blood pressure, so this is a great screening for something they may not even be aware of,” she said.
People are not aware of the direct relationship between oral health and overall health. “That’s why everything we do at an event like this we have as much education about overall health because it’s all directly connected to oral health. It is systemic, so if you have disease in your mouth, it can go through your whole body.”
“So, we really try to educate people about that and we’re doing panoramic x-rays, also doing oral cancer screening,” she said and shed light on a growing concern of oral cancer in young men. “The number one risk factor for new cause for oral cancer, the number one cause now is HPV with the number one age group men 18 to 25 for new cases of oral cancer.”
“We are screening every patient for this, and we have a special phosphorescent light that will illuminate the tissues of first and second stage oral cancer. Normally you don’t have any symptoms until third or fourth stage, so this is a big deal,” she said.
Catching oral cancer in the first two stages may save someone’s life. The survivability rate of oral cancer in the first stages ranges 65-85% but that falls to 35-45% when oral cancer is detected in the third of fourth stage.
“We couldn’t do what we’re doing here without the volunteers,” Gravitte said. “These people, they chose to be here, they have other things so it’s really moving to see how wonderful people step up to help other folks out who are in need. Just look around.”
Volunteer Aslihan Sakar travelled from Pennsylvania to volunteer for another year and was found sanitizing equipment. She said she was back again because, “I love this field. It’s kind of like art.”
“You get to have your own instruments and you have a favorite instrument. You’re making art and science and putting that together,” she said before adding, “Plus, I like to smile, and I like to make people laugh too.”
During the pandemic, the event had to evolve to still be of service and Fretwell said their office that year did, “Community With Heart which supplied over 800 care packages for local families that we distributed here at our office and with local agencies too.”
These packages were not just the grab bags a dentist gives on the way out with a mini floss to be lost in a drawer later. “When you couldn’t get toilet paper and you couldn’t get paper towels, or regular hygiene items – we were able to work with our partners to source those items and we had several meals for families in bags too.”
This time around, there was info on community health topics including vaping, mental health, and drop-in homeless shelters. Another table was decked out by Gates Pharmacy, which was supplying the amoxicillin for patients who were having oral surgery but may not have been able to afford the medications after to prevent infection.
Fretwell said partnerships like the one with Gates Pharmacy make this more than a free dental clinic. “It’s a full community health event, it’s not just a dental health event and that’s why it’s so important to have that educational information here and the resources available because the people that are coming here, they need help.”
“For us just to offer for us just to offer dentistry service is great. But while we have those patients here, make it the very best experience possible.”