Many dental professionals have seen how dental treatment can help restore dignity and confidence to patients. For patients who have delayed dental treatment for financial reasons or a lack of access to care, the loss of confidence and the health impacts can often be significant. Addressing this problem is part of the work of Medical Teams International, which sends teams of volunteer medical professionals to treat patients in more than 70 countries with medical and dental care, humanitarian aid, and holistic development programs.
Discovering the Scope of the Need for Care
Founded in 1979 by a businessman in Salem, Ore., the organization initially focused on traveling internationally to provide medical care to those in need. By 1989, the group added local dental care to its services and outfitted a Winnebago as a traveling medical and dental clinic to serve the Pacific Northwest. It was during this process that A-dec first donated a chair and equipment to the organization, a practice it has continued as the mobile dental vans have increased in number. Medical Teams International also utilizes A-dec’s portable field equipment in its work abroad.
After beginning its domestic work in 1989, the group soon discovered that there was a much greater need for dental care than it initially planned for. The original van was then converted to strictly offer dental treatment to low income individuals without dental insurance or reasonable access to care. The number of dental vans has since grown to 12 (each with two chairs), with six vans serving Oregon, five in Washington and one in Minnesota. The vans are each staffed by one Medical Teams International employee along with volunteer teams of dentists, hygienists and dental assistants.
“The vans are fully outfitted with chairs and delivery systems, handpieces, x-ray equipment all the instruments you would typically find in a dental office,” says Matt Stiller, the manager for dental programs.
Help from Neighbors
Based in Tigard, Ore., Medical Teams International has enjoyed a neighborly relationship with A-dec, located in nearby Newberg. In fact, several A-dec employees volunteer for the organization in their time off.
“When I first started here about eight years ago I was introduced to a woman who works at A-dec who was willing to volunteer after her shift ended,” says Barbara Bova, procurement coordinator for the mobile dental program. “She taught me how to maintain the equipment and things like that, and she also went back and talked to her coworkers at A-dec about us.”
As word about the organization spread within A-dec, more helpers emerged, including one technician who began volunteering the day after his retirement from A-dec. “He was a technician who had taught dental dealers how to repair equipment,” says Bova. “The day after he retired from A-dec, he came over here to help repair the equipment and keep us trained on it.”
Bova explains that the proximity of the two organizations often comes in very handy. “If we have an urgent need on the van or something happens to a piece of equipment, I can call over there and often we can pick up a part the same day or they can get it to us the very next day. It keeps us functioning so that we can continue doing what we need to do.”
Keeping the dental vans running is essential to the organization and the patients it serves, now numbering more than 200,000. Medical Teams International works with local site partners—such as schools, churches and food shelves—in the communities the vans travel to, relying on these site partners to perform screening, scheduling and other administrative tasks. A van typically visits a site for just one day, but in this time its volunteers can treat dozens of patients thanks to the work of its partner organizations.
When asked for feedback about their treatment, dental patients express sincere gratitude. “Over and over, we hear, ‘I can’t believe there’s a program that cares about us,’” says Stiller. “People will write, ‘I’ve been suffering from this dental pain for more than five years.’ You get the sense that they have a little bit of a new outlook on life.”
Patient stories also often highlight the greater impacts of dental care, including its importance to systemic health. “I’ve had bad teeth for 20 years and twice it has infected my artificial heart valve,” wrote one patient. “If it wasn’t for the dental van I’m sure my valve wouldn’t last much longer.”
These compelling responses provide outstanding fuel for the staff, volunteers and donors who keep Medical Teams International running, and contribute to a positive atmosphere that is rewarding for everyone involved, including A-dec.
“They have been absolutely gracious and supportive,” says Stiller. “They’re doing everything they can do, and often with a statement that they’re happy to help because they appreciate what we’re doing. That in itself is an encouragement, let alone the dollar value of what they’re providing. The way they react to us is an encouragement, and reinforces what we do.”
Sidebar: Patients Share Their Thanks
A sampling of responses from patient feedback forms:
“The people are always kind and understanding. They are wonderful people who have a heart of gold.”
“It is so nice to have people that care for those of us that are poor. THANK YOU.”
“I really appreciate the dental van. The people are wonderful and made me feel human. I have been dealing with dental pain for years and am happy to have a service like this. Thank you so very much!”