Will County dentist takes to the road to bring care to the under-served
BY DENISE M. BARAN-UNLAND For Sun-Times Media
Dr. Sangita Garg, who has worked hard to get a dental van service rolling through Will County, tends to a young patient who finds a little extra comfort sitting on her mother’s lap at the Will County dental clinic. | CAROL DORSETT ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
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Three times a week, a 40-foot single-body mobile motor coach pulls into some school yard, community shelter and or daycare center parking lot.
It comes from the Will County Community Health Center, and it is equipped with digital X-ray technology and two fully-equipped dental chairs.
It is a rolling offer of educational, preventive and cleaning services to under-served children and adults.
The van is a dream-come-true for Dr. Sangita Garg, dental director at the Will County
Community Health Center. Garg, a practicing dentist for 25 years, knows first-hand the suffering underserved dental patients experience. Garg was once one of those patients.
As a little girl growing up in a working middle-class family in India, Garg practiced the basics of good oral hygiene. But regular trips to the dentist were luxuries beyond the family budget. Her first visit came as a teen, when excruciating mouth pain prevented eating, talking or sleeping.
“The next day, I went to the dentist and realized my adult molar would have to be extracted because I had waited too long for treatment,” Garg said. “It was a life-changing nightmare. I decided to work hard to become a dentist and help prevent this treatable oral disease.”
In the summer of 2010, the Will County health center applied for grant funding through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Arrangements for the van were completed through LifeLine Mobile, Inc., of Columbus, Ohio.
Once the center received the grant, Garg, who was thrilled at the opportunities a mobile van could provide, became involved with the bidding and selection process, as well making decisions regarding its equipment, design, policies and procedures.
“I was aware of the other dental programs with mobile vans and thought that it would be a great resource to serve under-privileged patients without means of transportation,” Garg said.
Despite the fact that the Will County center offers a dental clinic with sliding scale fees at its 1106 Neal Avenue location (a small fee also accompanies the services of the dental van), working class parents often face many obstacles in taking advantage of that care.
Both parents may work — sometimes two jobs apiece — and they may not have reliable transportation or even the money for even the reduced cost for basic dental treatment. In some cases, the educational component is completely lacking.
“By the time their kids go to school, their mouths are full of cavities,” Garg said.
Many parents do not understand the importance of consistent, preventative dental care until a problem arises. Unfortunately, the consequences of ignoring oral hygiene can be more than just pain, cavities and tooth loss, which interfere with eating, sleeping, talking and learning. Bad oral hygeine can kill.
“Infection can enter the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body,” Garg said. “Tooth decay affects children in the United States more than any other chronic infectious disease. The good news is that tooth decay and other oral diseases that affect children are preventable with dental sealants and fluoride.”
Garg still remembers arriving at the dental clinic on a beautiful Saturday summer day, ready to see her patients. To her horror, Garg saw that one side of the face of a little 4-year-old girl was horribly swollen and resembled that of a chipmunk. The girl’s mother, obviously distressed, hovered near her.
“As I looked at the patient’s X-ray, I saw that she had a badly decayed tooth and infection spreading to the jaw area,” Garg said. “It agonizes me that simple preventable tooth decay, if not treated on time, can be life threatening.”
Health experts agree, Garg said, that infancy is the optimal time for creating healthy smiles. Routine dental care should begin around six months or right after that first tooth erupts.
“I’ve seen 3- to 5-year-old children at Head Start who have never been to a dentist,” Garg said.
By then, it’s not healthy smiles that Garg sees in her clinic, but mouths containing swollen gums and tooth decay. Educating the parents about how to care for their children’s teeth at home is a large part of treatment.
For instance, many parents do not realize that “baby bottle” syndrome is caused by sugar bathing their children’s teeth for long periods of time. This is why children should not go to bed with a bottle in their mouths unless it contains plain water or rely on bottles full of milk and “sippy” cups of juice as daytime pacifiers.
So when the van makes its stops, its occupants, one dentist and one dental assistant who, with her CDL license, doubles as the van’s primary driver, offers more than teeth cleaning and oral cancer screening.
They instruct the children on proper oral hygiene techniques and conduct educational programs for the classrooms, such as showing videos that demonstrate the correct way to brush one’s teeth.
It’s not just children’s lack of dental care that concerns Garg, but also adults without access to it. That’s why the dental clinic encourages pregnant women to receive regular preventative treatment (hormone changes in pregnancy may cause gum inflammation) and the van visits community shelters, too.
“We treated patients there who hadn’t seen a dentist in 10 to 15 years,” Garg said.
Garg’s commitment to improving Will County’s dental health doesn’t stop at the van. During this month — February is National Dental Health Month — the Will County Community Health Center is offering additional activities to create awareness in improving oral health.
For instance, the dental staff will visit local schools for educational dental presentations, dental education videos will play in the patient waiting area, dental providers will perform free dental screenings for children in the pediatric clinic area and children ages 5 though 10 may participate in a dental page coloring contest.
With all the passion and time Garg channels into her role as dental director at the Will County center, it’s easy to forget she manages a private practice, too. Still, when the position of dental director at the center opened up 12 years ago, Garg didn’t hesitate in applying for it.
“My focus here is not making money but to provide service,” Garg said. “Every year, with the help of our dental staff, thousands of children and adults are given healthy smiles and are saved from intolerable pain and embarrassment.”
“There is still a big demand, but I feel that if I can prevent dental disease in even a handful of children, then I have done my job.”