Coleman Williamson of Brandon, a U.S. Air Force veteran, jokes with caregivers in the School of Dentistry clinic during Dental Mission Week.
Coleman Williamson of Brandon, a U.S. Air Force veteran, jokes with caregivers in the School of Dentistry clinic during Dental Mission Week.
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Veterans served their country; now, UMMC's SOD serves them

Published on Monday, February 8, 2021

By: Ruth Cummins

Coleman Williamson knows exactly why he drove from his Brandon home Feb. 2 to the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry.

“A lack of attention to my dental health,” the U.S. Air Force veteran and four-year prostate cancer survivor said. “My daddy never had health insurance, and he was a truck driver. I lived in 27 states before I got to the seventh grade.”

Williamson is playing catch-up, and he’s happy to do it. One of teeth was giving him immediate problems. “For the past three months, it’s been breaking off in tiny pieces,” he said.

He’s in a group of local veterans who received dental care Feb. 1-3 as part of the School of Dentistry’s Dental Mission Week. An annual staple since 2017, the initiative is a joint effort involving volunteers from the Schools of Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Medicine, along with dental school students and residents, dental hygiene students, and volunteer dentists and staff from local practices.

Third-year dental student Thien-Trieu Nguyen takes the blood pressure of patient Coleman Williamson before beginning a dental exam.
Thien-Trieu Nguyen, a third-year dental student, takes Williamson's blood pressure before beginning a dental exam.

The goal is to provide much-needed dental care to underserved and uninsured adults and children. It especially takes in vulnerable populations, including veterans and the homeless.

Trimmed down this year to a packed three days, Dental Mission Week provides SOD students with service learning and hands-on experiences that prepare them for their future roles as oral health care champions. Services offered include extractions, cleanings, and fillings and root canals to the front teeth.

Absent this year due to pandemic restrictions is Give Kids a Smile Day, a feature of Dental Mission Week that brings hundreds of elementary-aged children from the Jackson school district to campus. Students get a free teeth cleaning – for some children, the first they’ve ever had – and get an oral health care evaluation to take home.

Together, Dental Mission Week and Give Kids a Smile traditionally bring a combined 1,500 kids and adults to campus. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, that number has been pared down to about 300, almost all of them veterans, said Melody Longino, manager of the school’s ambulatory operations. 

Third-year dental student Thein-Trieu Nguyen, left, and Dr. Alexa Lampkin, assistant professor of care planning and restorative sciences, examine patient Coleman Williamson.
Nguyen, left, and Dr. Alexa Lampkin, assistant professor of care planning and restorative sciences, examine Williamson.

“The beauty of this is that a lot of them need multiple things done,” Longino said. “With the numbers we have this year, we can get everything done, and it reduces the number of times they have to come back. It also gives them the option to come back on Wednesday after being seen on Monday.”

Dental Mission Week is much needed in Mississippi, where more than half of residents who have not seen a dentist in the last 12 months gave cost as the main reason for the lapse, according to a survey from the American Dental Association.

“Thank God for this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” Williamson said.

Also grateful for the chance to have his teeth examined was Daniel Bowman, a U.S. Marine Corps and National Guard veteran. He was getting a thorough teeth cleaning and heard about Dental Mission Week through the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson, where he receives medical care.

Fourth-year dental hygiene student Ashlynn Baney asks patient and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Bowman of Jackson if he's having any issues with his teeth as part of Bowman's exam during Dental Mission Week.
Ashlynn Baney, a fourth-year dental hygiene student, asks Daniel Bowman of Jackson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, about his dental health during Dental Mission Week.

“It’s been a while since I had them cleaned,” the Jackson resident said. He’s fortunate to have no ongoing dental problems.

“I bumped into our washing machine as a child and chipped my tooth, but I got it fixed,” he said.

Mississippi has the second lowest patient-to-dentist ratio in the United States, according to the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute, making access to dental care a problem for many. There are 2,120 residents for every active, licensed dentist in the state, and in rural areas that number is even higher, according to the Mississippi State Board of Dental Examiners and U.S. Census data.

After registering and following COVID-19 protocols, Dental Mission Week patients are sent to dental triage, where their needs are assessed by School of Dentistry faculty and students. Williamson had a pre-procedure visit to get several cavities filled, with his broken tooth set for repair on the following visit.

Patients are spread across clinic space in the dental school, which is abuzz with activity as both dental and dental hygiene students pair with faculty to assess needs and work in tandem to improve each person’s oral health.

“This tooth on the top … about half of it is broken off,” Williamson told third-year dental student Thien-Trieu Nguyen. 

“I’ll take a look,” Nguyen said. “I think I know what’s going on from looking at your (electronic medical record) notes.” 

Several minutes later, faculty member Dr. Alexa Lampkin took a seat on a stool by Nguyen’s, and the two continued sizing up the broken tooth and the overall state of Williamson’s teeth.

Portrait of Dr. Alexa Lampkin

“The margin of the tooth is starting to feel a little hard, but there’s still a sticky area,” Lampkin, an assistant professor of care planning and restorative sciences, said to Nguyen. There’s no perfect fix for the broken tooth, she told Williamson, but Nguyen “will reduce it just a little bit to put your mind at ease.” 

Lampkin and other faculty moved through the room, overseeing the work of the students and giving them valuable lessons at every stop. 

“They’re doing as much as they can for veterans or those with limited access to care,” said Lampkin, a 2017 School of Dentistry graduate who embraced the opportunity for full-time teaching – her passion – immediately following her studies. “They’re learning and using practical application of different techniques to treat each patient as if they were in a year of an advance training residency.”

Third- and fourth-year dental students worked directly with patients, while first- and second-year students mostly observed and assisted. “Our first year to do this was the year I graduated,” Lampkin said. “It’s pretty awesome how successful we’ve been in the number of patients we’ve been able to treat.”

Williamson, who retired from Puckett Machinery and spends his free time pursuing his love of flying and tending to cats Sophie and Abby, said he’ll continue to use Dental Mission Week as a dental health resource.

“I try to be the most cooperative patient in the world,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.