Prosthodontics outreach program gives new life to elderly dental patients at UNHS
The Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. Community Health Centers at Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley hosted a unique four-day humanitarian outreach program in September, conducted by the Academy of Prosthodontics.
Two teams of four Prosthodontists and Dentists, and a lab technician, provided twenty elderly patients at both locations with full sets of dentures in a four-day period. Dr. Vance Telford, D.D.S. with the Montezuma Creek Clinic, said patients made their appointments as far in advance as six or seven months, and had the preliminary work done (screening, having teeth pulled, etc.) prior to their appointments. Dr. Telford and other UNHS Dentists and staff assisted their visitors in every way possible to make the clinics a success.
Dr. Geoffrey Thompson D.D.S., of the Department of Prosthodontics at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was part of the group at Montezuma Creek. Dr. Thompson, and his close friend, Dr. James Deboer D.D.S., of El Paso, Texas, have been doing these Prosthodontic Clinics at Montezuma Creek for nearly twenty years. Both are Prosthodontists, whose specialty is rehabilitating and restoring lost teeth. Dr. Deboer's Laboratory Technician, Ted Medina, has been with them each year. According to Medina, each visit has been more rewarding than the last. Medina has been a lab tech for over forty years, and has worked with Dr. Deboer for more than twenty years.
"Our colleagues always ask why we do this. Some of them can't understand how we can spend a week working for free here," Medina said. "I tell them, 'you don't know. You don't know the feeling of seeing someone get a set of dentures and how grateful they are to get their life back. I can eat, they say.' I love coming here. It's very worthwhile to know I'm helping people."
Doctors Thompson and Deboer also love coming to Montezuma Creek and working with the people here. They praised the staff at the Montezuma Creek Clinic for their excellent work and cooperation in helping with the outreach program.
"The patients, the staff and all the people here have been wonderful to work with. It's a great place to come and work," Dr. Deboer said.
The clinics at Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley are just part of a larger outreach program that has spread to many parts of the country. Dr. Thompson said the outreach programs began in Oklahoma in the mid-1990's. From there, the outreach programs expanded to Montana, Alaska, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Chicago, Fort Duchesne, Utah, and many other locations. Dr. Deboer said many of the same people started outreach programs in different locations, and then other groups from the Academy of Prosthodontics stepped in and took over. Many of the teams visit the same locations each year, as is the case with the teams working at Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley.
Dr. Eric Rasmussen, D.D.S., is a private practice Prosthodontist from Madison, Wisconsin, who has also been with the Academy for twenty years. He spent the same week in September at the outreach clinic in Monument Valley. Dr. Rasmussen became the Outreach Committee Chair for the Academy of Prosthodontics in the mid-1990's after, as he put, "I raised my hand at the wrong time, during a meeting." Dr. Rasmussen was joined by Dr. Edward Plekavich D.D.S., a Prosthodontist from Virginia. Dr. Plekavich has also devoted twenty years with the outreach programs. Dr. Paul Martinez D.D.S. from Price, Utah, Dr. Edward J. Welch, D.D.S. from Massachusetts, and Dr. Tom Galvin, D.D.S. from Connecticut also spent the week at Monument Valley.
Dr. Rasmussen said in most private practice dental clinics, it's hard to make dentures because there are so many other treatments to do.
"Most dental clinics that do make dentures might make twenty pair per year, and they are expensive. In a four-day outreach clinic we can make twenty pair and they're free," he said. "We can see a patient on Monday, and by Thursday that patient is smiling again. We feel like we can make a difference. With dentures, these patients feel like they can be around other people. They feel better if they can smile because no one wants to see grandma or grandpa without teeth."
According to Rasmussen, the Academy of Prosthodontics has made and provided nearly 2,000 pairs of dentures in all their outreach programs, over the last twenty years. That amounts to around $1 million in dentures.
"It's really not the numbers that matter, but it puts things in perspective. You can't put a number on the worth of these dentures to our patients. What's it worth to be able to go to a wedding and smile and be with your kids?"
Dr. Plekavich said the outreach clinic at Monument Valley wouldn't be possible without the facilities and the staff's cooperation. He said the staff was wonderful and the facilities were just right for doing the kind of work required to make dentures. And, he stressed, the patients were great to work with.
"Some patients are a little shy at first because we're not familiar to them. But we have friends we haven't met yet, and I'm sure we'll meet a lot of great people this week," Dr. Rasmussen added.
"You never know who is watching," Dr. Plekavich said of the volunteer work done at the outreach clinics. "Once someone sees you helping others, it might inspire them to give of themselves instead of receiving."
Dr. Deboer said that the outreach clinic at Monument Valley was added last year to make it easier for patients from Monument Valley to take part. He said in the past patients from Monument Valley rode buses to Montezuma Creek. Also this year, Deboer noted, Dentsply Corporation donated a utility trailer to help haul all the equipment needed for the four-day clinic in Montezuma Creek.
Dr. Thompson explained that the work of the outreach programs is done on tribal lands because the provider's licenses can transfer from state to state when they work on tribal lands. This allows the outreach programs to work in states where they might not otherwise be able to work.
Thompson also explained that after finishing Dental School, it takes three years of additional schooling to become a Prosthodontist. Two of his school's graduate resident students, Abdulaziz Alqahtani, of Saudi Arabia, and Renos Argyrou, of Cyprus, also worked at the Montezuma Creek clinic.
"This service is huge for our patients," Dr. Telford said. "We're glad to have them here."