A dental student watches while a patient enjoys inspecting his new dentures.
Hayden Hess, a second-year dental student, watches while Jack Cooper enjoys inspecting his new dentures.
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SOD faculty, students' weeklong mission: Offer free care to more than 1,000

Published on Thursday, February 6, 2020

By: Kate Royals

The School of Dentistry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in partnership with schools across campus and volunteers from the community, is providing free care for up to 300 patients a day this week during its fourth annual Dental Mission Week.

The massive, campus-wide undertaking results in free dental care for adults and children from across the state who are underinsured or cannot afford dental care.

After registering, patients are sent to medical and dental triage where their needs are assessed by School of Dentistry and School of Nursing faculty and students.

Two dentists check a patients mouth.
Dr. Sara Jane McCrary, assistant professor of pediatric dentistry, and Dr. James Lott, center, associate professor of dentistry, check William Stuart's teeth during dental triage. Stuart, a Winona resident, served in the U.S. Navy.

Dr. Sara Jane McCrary, assistant professor of dentistry, was alternating between helping in dental triage and in the pediatric clinic. She said on Wednesday not only did the patients’ need for dental care stand out to her, but also their gratitude for receiving the care.

“There have been a lot of patients who need a lot of dental work done,” she said of the patients she’s seen in dental triage.

The services offered include extractions, cleanings, fillings root canals to the front teeth and all pediatric treatments.

And for the first year, patients will be screened for oral cancer. Three patients had already been biopsied as of Wednesday, according to Melody Longino, project manager in the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry and the main organizer for the event.

Planning the fourth year of the event – which depends on donations volunteers from inside the Medical Center and across Jackson – has been no small task.

“It’s like an orchestra,” said Longino in between answering calls on her office phone, cell phone and messages on her walkie talkie.

“Every year we’re looking for things to improve,” she continued, but this year has gone smoothly so far with the help of applications and scheduled-in-advance appointments.

In addition to the range of services offered, each year 20 patients receive a completely free set of dentures, which in a regular dentist’s office can cost up to $5,000 a pair.   

Kerry Haines and Jack Cooper, both of Sturgis, are two of those patients this year. Both are wheelchair-bound and rely on their relatives and caregivers Vic and Lisa Lindsey to get them to their appointments. They first came ahead of Dental Mission Week for their screenings and have returned every day this week for the actual making of the dentures.

The group wakes up around 3 a.m. every morning to prepare for the nearly two-hour drive to Jackson.

It makes for a tiring week, “but it’s worth it,” Vic said.

Two patients show off their new dentures.
Kerry Haimes, left, and his cousin, Cooper, show off their new dentures.

Both Haines and Cooper came to Dental Mission Week for the first time last year and had several teeth pulled. Over the past year, they have been patients at the Jackson Free Clinic and returned to Dental Mission Week this year for their dentures.

After a year of eating mostly peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal, Haines and Cooper are excited to be able to eat normally again.

“I’m glad to get them … I hope they work,” said Haines.

Vic and Lisa, who live with Cooper and across the road from Haines, said everyone at UMMC has been “above and beyond helpful” since they first brought their loved ones to the 2019 Dental Mission Week.

“Melody (Longino) hooked us up with the free clinic last year” and helped get them set up to receive the much-needed dentures this week.

While denture patients generally visit the school every day of the week, two other days are dedicated to serving two specific populations. On Wednesday, dental and dental hygiene faculty, students and volunteers all came together to provide free dental care to veterans who do not have dental benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Woman in dental chair smiles as dental assistant shows toothbrush use.
Sydney LeMaster, right, a fourth-year dental hygiene student, demonstrates proper brushing technique for Janelle Griffin, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Jannelle Griffin came in to have a cleaning done with fourth-year dental hygiene student Sydney LeMaster. She also planned to have a sensitive tooth checked out while there.

Griffin, who served in the Air Force for 13 years, is now a self-employed realtor in Jackson and does not have dental benefits, so this service is essential for her.

“They are so patient and thorough and really do a good job,” Griffin, who also came to last year’s event, said. “I just wish more veterans knew about it.”

Dental Mission Week will wrap up on Friday with Give Kids a Smile Day, where nearly 400 elementary school students from Jackson Public Schools will come for dental care. In a state where many children have limited to no access to dental care, the opportunity to sit in the dental chair Friday may mean a child’s first time seeing a dentist.

“This program is an incredible opportunity for the entire UMMC campus Schools of Nursing, Pharmacy, Medicine, and Health Related Professions, to work together, along with Hinds Community College’s dental assisting program, to provide care to the underserved in the Jackson metro area,” said Dr. David Felton, dean of the School of Dentistry. “As we have patients driving up to 3 hours to seek care this week, it underscores the tremendous need in our state for dental care. Our patients have been incredibly appreciative, and such services as our Oral Cancer Screening clinic, which is new this year, along with our denture clinic, allow us to bring incredible smiles to Mississippians.”