Cynthia Warren hasn't been able to taste her favorite snack - roasted peanuts - since 2014 because of tooth loss. Her husband, Ronald, has been without teeth for even longer.
“After I lost all my teeth, we saved up some money to get dentures for both of us,” Cynthia said. But “somebody decided to 'relieve' us of that money,” she said, and new dentures for the Warrens would not be possible.
That setback meant it would be years before the Warrens could afford dental care. Ronald had been a machinist until the local tool-and-die work moved to Mexico. He took up carpentry to earn his living and was hurt on the job.
“I wasn't anywhere near ready to retire,” Ronald said. “I got hit in the head with a board. I've been disabled 13 years, going on 14.”
Cynthia started looking online for resources and found Mississippi Donated Dental Services, a program of Dental Lifeline Network. Michelle Aiken, the MDDS services coordinator, added the Warrens to the organization's waiting list.
“They told me it would be two to three years waiting,” Cynthia said. “Then Michelle called right before Christmas and told me about this program and asked if we would be interested.
“I said, 'Yes!' I'm so grateful.”
The program was the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry's inaugural Dental Mission Week. During the week of Feb. 6-10, the faculty shut down normal operations and opened the school to Mississippi's underserved community.
Patients from the Jackson metro area to as far away as Pascagoula and Greenwood arrived well before 8 a.m. on the first day to receive much-needed care.
he program's goal was to provide dental care to 800 adult patients. By the end of the week, 922 adults had been seen in the clinic, and an additional 376 elementary school children from the Jackson Public School District were seen Feb. 10 during Give Kids A Smile Day.
According to an American Dental Association survey, more than half of Mississippians who have not seen a dentist during the last 12 months gave cost as the main reason for neglecting their oral health.
It isn't just about appearance: People with poor oral health tend to eat unhealthy foods rather than fresh fruits and vegetables. Research also suggests there may be a connection between oral health and cardiovascular disease.
Dental Mission Week resulted from the SOD students' desire to serve the community, said Dr. David Felton, professor of care planning and restorative sciences and SOD dean.
“My thought was, if we are going to teach our students about service, let's actually provide some service,” Felton said.
Marla Martin, director of clinical operations in the SOD, led organization efforts for Dental Mission Week, which included participants from the Schools of Medicine, the School of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy and the School of Health Related Professions.
SOD faculty assessed patients in dental triage to determine their chief complaints. Patients then received X-rays and clinic assignments based on their treatment needs: extractions, restorations, root canals or periodontal treatments.
Cynthia said she was given the “royal treatment” from the time she walked into the school.
“They opened the door for me and I had someone escort me everywhere,” she said. “It has been exceptional.”
Although 20 patients were preselected from a Mississippi Donated Dental Services waiting list to receive full upper and lower dentures, not all of them were able to go to Dental Mission Week, and several others weren't medically eligible to receive dentures. That didn't keep the SOD from making its goal: Organizers found nine patients in the waiting area who qualified for the services, and 22 dentures were provided.
Miles Backstrom, a third-year dental student, crafted Cynthia's dentures while Mary Catherine Hoover, a third-year dental student, provided Ronald's dentures. Cynthia said she had “no hesitation whatsoever” in allowing the students to provide care.
“It's not because I was desperate to get dentures,” she said. “I thought this will help me and my husband and it will help them, too. Everybody's benefiting.”
The experience wasn't only about receiving much-needed dental care.
“It's about the bond that I feel towards Miles and everyone here - the people down front, everybody,” Cynthia said. “This whole experience has been a godsend and very uplifting for me.”
Cynthia bought a jar of roasted peanuts on the way home from her first fitting and couldn't wait to try them.
“I'm going to break open that jar and my husband's going to be hard-pressed to get it away from me,” she said.
Ronald is looking forward to eating his first apple in more than three years - and whistling.
“I haven't been able to whistle in several years,” he said. “I guess I'll have to relearn how. It's going to be real nice.
“Just having teeth in your mouth makes you feel a lot better.”