WISE — Friday’s groundbreaking for a new dental clinic marks improved access for care and a new partnership with Lincoln Memorial University.
Officials from Southwest Virginia-based The Health Wagon joined with donors, local government officials and the dean of the newly formed LMU Dental School to turn dirt for what will be a 10-chair clinic.
Health Wagon CEO Dr. Teresa Tyson said the clinic, which is slated to open in September, marks a 20-year effort by the organization to expand dental care since it started a two-decade series of free medical clinics in cooperation with Remote Area Medical (RAM).
Tyson credited Health Wagon founder Sister Bernie Kenny with realizing the need for dental care and her work toward making it part of the organization’s mission.
Tyson said dental care has been a high-demand service since The Health Wagon started about four decades ago as a free mobile clinic. That demand increased with the RAM clinics, and Tyson credited the Virginia Dental Association Foundation with joining the effort and providing more volunteer dentists and staff over the years.
Tyson recalled how, during one of those early clinics, a boy asked for treatment.
“He said, ‘If I start to cry, please don’t stop,’ ” Tyson said, adding that the boy wanted relief from his dental pain.
“This is dedicated to all who helped us,” said Tyson, “and to that boy who’s out there somewhere.”
Virginia U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith, First District state Delegate Terry Kilgore and 40th District state Sen. Todd Pillion sent video messages of support for Friday’s ceremony. Kaine and Warner each noted that the clinic will benefit from a $1.25 million congressional budget earmark to help with construction.
LMU Board of Trustees Chairman Pete DeBusk and College of Dental Medicine Dean Denise Terese-Koch pointed to the partnership the university has signed with The Health Wagon so students will rotate through the clinic to be trained and to help treat patients.
“This is going to be perfect,” DeBusk said of the clinic partnership. “You know where our students are going to train.”
Terese-Koch said the clinic will do more than provide dental care.
“You cannot have good general health without good oral health,” she said. “For a well-rounded education, students must learn to provide dental care in different settings.”
LMU students will start rotations at the new clinic in 2023 for observation, Terese-Kock said, and student dentists should start rotations to help with patient care in 2024.
Health Wagon Nursing Director Paula Hill-Collins credited Olivia Stallard, the organization’s first in-house dentist, with helping provide mobile clinic services across the service region.
Health Wagon grant writer Rachel Helton said the clinic should be equipped and ready to take patients in the early fall this year.
Health Wagon Medical Director Dr. Joe Frank Smiddy said the partnership with LMU represents more than just staff for the clinic. He called Southwest Virginia a “dental desert” because of the low number of dentists across the region. LMU’s College of Dental Medicine will work to recruit students from the region, he said, and five students from UVA Wise already have been identified as candidates for admission in 2022 and 2023.
“We’ve also talked with a few students at ETSU, and they will be able to take their fourth year at LMU,” said Smiddy. “This is a tremendous opportunity for students in this area who want to become dentists.”
Smiddy said improving dental care access in the region can help with another major health issue: substance abuse.
“The opioid epidemic is fueled in part by dental problems,” said Smiddy. “Often, the first exposure to opioids for many people is from prescriptions for dental issues that have gone untreated, and helping people get access to care can help reduce that exposure.”
Kenny called the clinic “an answer to prayer and faith.”
“This is also an opportunity for education,” said Kenny. “For so many years it has been a struggle to provide dental care.”