Volunteering At a Free Dental Clinic

An Inspirational Story About Being a Volunteer

Jennifer McKee, Robby Cahill, and Ron Keller. Photo Courtesy of Jennifer McKee

The reality of today's economic crisis has left thousands of people without employment. Social status, level of education, years of experience; the jobless rate unfortunately fails to discriminate, and has left many without any options. With many people unemployed, finding volunteers has become difficult. Many charitable organizations rely on the volunteers that dedicate countless hours of their time, without a financial incentive, to keep their programs going.

Get Your Scrubs

Jennifer McKee has been a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic since 2008. When I asked her why she chose to become a volunteer, her response was heartfelt. "Why does anyone choose to do humanitarian volunteer work? Many are driven by faith, some by compassion alone. For me, it's the compassion, but the clinic was founded by a coalition of churches and is mostly staffed by the faithful."

Jennifer doesn't come from a dental background, which made her first day in the free dental clinic memorable. "Once I showed up to volunteer (planning to help with publicity), I was hooked, although I would never have imagined myself involved in dentistry! I like to tell people that I showed up expecting to answer the phone or do computer work, and the next thing I knew, they were getting me a Hep-B shot and buying me scrubs."

Driven by her passion to help those less fortunate, she commits about 25-30 hours per month with the clinic.

She helps out by assisting the hygienist with teeth cleanings, disinfecting the treatment rooms and equipment between patients, develops x-rays, and has even assisted the dentist during an extraction. Jennifer also sits on the Board of Directors, working on promotional/awareness work for the clinic.

Breaking the Habit, One Tooth At a Time

The Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic's mission is simple: "Restoring lives, one tooth at a time." This may sound cliché, but once you learn about their patients, the slogan couldn't be anymore appropriate.
Most patients tend to have the same complaint: toothaches and rotten teeth. Severe infection and extreme dental decay is not uncommon. "Many of the people who come to our clinic have never seen a dentist and have put off calling us until the pain is intolerable or they are referred by an emergency room or sympathetic friend." What's more frighting is what the patients think their treatment will entail. "Our young adult patients, a surprising number, expect to have dentures by the time they are in their twenties or thirties, as their parents did and therefore want us to pull all of their teeth. (We are unwilling to pull teeth that can be saved.) One fellow had cut out his own front teeth with a pocket knife."

Understanding the importance of regular dental care, along with the abuse of sugar-laden beverages is a major contributor of the decay seen in the clinic. "Common in our patients are a range of poor dental habits, including lack of basic hygiene, use of sugary drinks, tobacco use and utter lack of exposure to fluoride (due to drinking well and/or spring water).

Ignorance is our worst enemy as so many of our patients know nothing about caring for their teeth."

An Appalachian Epidemic?

In 2009, Diane Sawyer exposed the tooth decay epidemic in Kentucky's central Appalachia. The term "Mountain Dew Mouth" is common among dentists that treat the patients of the Appalachia. Destructive and rampant is the best way to describe this type of tooth decay that is eerily similar to a type of decay seen in drug abusers.

I was curious to know if the term "Mountain Dew Mouth" was used in other areas of the Appalachia. I was not surprised when Jennifer confirmed the term to be true.

"The Executive Director of our clinic has suggested that up to 65% of out patients admit to being regular Mountain Dew drinkers. Our hygienist and staff think that percentage may be much higher. Mountain Dew Mouth has been a popular phrase in the Clinic for years. It is similar in appearance to "Meth Mouth". Patients who habitually consume lots of Mountain Dew (or smoke methamphetamine) have severely damaged teeth." Jennifer also notes that "Tobacco (both smoking and chewing) use is another culprit, almost as bad. Sometimes we are forced to tell patients that if they do not give up Mountain Dew and tobacco, we cannot help them. For them, that can be a tough choice, in spite of their dire situations."

Worth Every Minute

No two stories are alike, yet almost every patient seen leaves a lasting impression on the staff. "We maintain a story book of many of the patients we have treated. Each of the stories is outstanding in its own way, from the beaten wife and (now single) mother whose teeth had been kicked out by her abusive husband, to the helpless elderly couple who had lost all their money and were both in severe pain with nowhere else to turn. We have treated patients with such severe infections that their lives were threatened, as well as patients with such hideous mouths that they could not enjoy a social life or obtain employment. It all sounds melodramatic, but it's true."

Volunteering is obviously hard work, but it's very rewarding at the same time. Jennifer's experience at the free dental clinic is evidence of this. "I've been fortunate enough to work for many charitable organizations over the years. Without exception, they are all on shoestring budgets, expected to keep costs to a minimum, and therefore heavily dependent on volunteer labor. Volunteers often get over-tapped and eventually burned out. As a person of volunteer temperament, it is often difficult to say 'no.' My best advice is to find a cause you truly love, then commit to only as much responsibility as you can comfortably and happily manage and afford. A burned-out, resentful volunteer is no good to anyone."

After hearing her story, it made me feel as if the world needs more people like Jennifer. Volunteers are truly the angels, or perhaps in Jennifer's case the tooth fairies, that walk among us.

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