WISE, Va. (WDBJ) – A new program in far southwest Virginia is working to provide dental care to people in the community who desperately need it. With costs too high and too few providers, healthcare teams say change is needed.
At Wise’s Health Wagon, it comes in the form of a new dental clinic.
On Friday, the Health Wagon team, along with partners and community leaders broke ground on the site adjacent to the existing Smiddy Clinic where a new 10-chair dental clinic will be built.
“I could really cry, I mean it’s a dream come true,” Health Wagon CEO Dr. Teresa Owens Tyson said.
She said that soon her team will be able to provide dental care to her community 365 days a year. They try to fill a need that they see every time they provide services at outreach events.
“People would sometimes arrive and line up a week in advance for health care. They were camping in their cars. They would hitchhike here,” she said. “I saw them fly frequent flyer miles to our event to get dental work.”
Dr Tyson said she has seen and heard time and time again how much 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 crying, whatever you do, don’t stop. I suffer so much. There are so many people who suffer needlessly.
Currently, the Health Wagon’s stand-alone clinic has a dental chair and a hygienist who can see up to 50 patients a week. The same number is seen weekly by Health Wagon staff dentist Dr. Olivia Stallard.
“You know, a lot of people in our community have never been to a dentist or they can’t afford a dentist,” she said. “That’s what I call a dental desert.”
Stallard works out of a two-chair trailer parked next to the clinic, on loan from Appalachia Miles for Smiles.
The dentist joined Wise two years ago and completed his dental studies in Florida.
Most of the teeth she sees are too worn out to save, her resources too limited to replace them.
The pandemic has not helped.
“We hope to bridge that gap and spread oral education for people,” she said. “So they don’t wait until it’s too late.”
She said that with the new dental clinic, she will be able to offer more services and more technology like 3D printed prostheses. The logistics are still being worked out, but she and Tyson say no one who really needs care will be turned away. They work on donations and grants, like those secured with the help of Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. They spoke at the event via a recorded video message, along with Congressman Morgan Griffith and other local delegates.
Scheduled to open this fall, the clinic will also incorporate graduates of Lincoln Memorial University’s new dental college.
Dean Denise Terese Koch said at the 2020 groundbreaking that she was hired by the university to establish the college. Program hygienists will begin working with the Health Wagon in 2023. Dentists will come in 2024.
For Stallard, the mission goes beyond fixing teeth. She’s here to fix lives.
“We can do dentures, we can do crowns,” she said. “We will be able to send people with their lives completely transformed because a smile will.”
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