Patient Janet Atlow is all smiles at Dental Mission Week.
Patient Janet Atlow is all smiles at Dental Mission Week.
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Dental Mission Week brings big smiles to Mississippians

Published on Monday, February 5, 2024

By: Rachel Vanderford, rvanderford@umc.edu

Photos By: Joe Ellis/ UMMC Photography

Dental day is always a struggle for Biloxi mother of five, Danielle Barnes.

“My youngest, Lamount, usually cries at the dentist,” said Barnes. “I always have to go sit in the chair and hold him while they look at his teeth.”

Struggling to find a pediatric dentist who made her kids feel comfortable, she was prepared to start travelling out of state to find someone who met her family’s health care needs. But fate intervened when she learned about Dental Mission Week at the UMMC School of Dentistry.

In its eighth year, Dental Mission Week is a collaborative effort involving volunteers from the Schools of Dentistry, Health Related Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy that offers free dental care to applicants in need. Providing free care during Dental Mission Week is made possible through generous donations from sponsors such as Hancock Whitney, who donated $25,000 in support of the event for the second year in a row. During the week, students and faculty members offer dental services such as cleanings, fillings, extractions, oral cancer screenings, root canals to the front teeth and even dental education.

Pediatric dental resident, Dr. Anne Marie Hreish, helps Lamount Harper of Biloxi pick out toys from the treasure chest.
Pediatric dental resident, Dr. Anne Marie Hreish, helps Lamount Harper of Biloxi pick out toys from the treasure chest.

“I was actually going to drive to Louisiana because I wanted a pediatric dentist that had a good reputation with kids,” said Barnes. “I went on Google and saw something about Dental Mission Week and free dental work. So, I sent applications in for Lamount and Kristofer and when they called, they asked if my daughter, Madison, wanted to do it as well. And I’m so glad I did that because that’s going to be their permanent dentist from now on.”

The nearly three-hour drive from Biloxi to Jackson was worth it for Barnes and her family.

Portrait of Dr. Anne Marie Hreish

“He did such a good job today,” said Dr. Anne Marie Hreish, pediatric dentistry resident, high-fiving a smiling six-year-old Lamount Harper. “He got a bunch of Spider-Man stickers because he deserves them.”

“I’m just so glad we learned about this,” said Barnes. “We actually made the trip twice this week because they got scheduled for a follow-up.”

Barnes said breaking the news about a second trip to the dentist in one week elicited a response she didn’t expect. “They were shouting ‘Yay!’ and I said ‘What do you mean? No one wants to go to the dentist’ but they like them. They like the whole team back there. They love Dr. [Teresa] Perkins and everybody else has been really sweet.”

She said that when they arrived the second day, Lamount ran up to Hreish, excited to see a friendly, familiar face.

“They just know how to work with kids here. They’re so easy and gentle with them. The people here are so patient with them and try to make the kids comfortable. The people downstairs that did his x-rays, they would count and then tell him ‘Okay, now freeze’. It was just the way they did it, made it a game for him, he liked it.”

Barnes said that even though she has the most expensive dental insurance plan offered to her, she is often asked to pay out of pocket for dental services. “A lot of places won’t take my insurance,” she said. “I know they have stuff that needs to be done, but between the two boys, I was going to have to pay $106,000 out of pocket. [Dental Mission Week] has been the best experience and I wanted to pay them for how excellent the care has been, but everything was free. I just can’t believe it.”

Portrait of Dr. Sreenivas Koka

“At its core, health care is really about service to humanity,” said Dr. Sreenivas Koka, dean of the School of Dentistry. “Sometimes we get it right in ways that exemplify selflessness and Dental Mission Week is one of these ways. Serving patients through bringing together so many people and partners who roll up their sleeves and create patient-centered magic is humanity at its finest.”

Also among the 618 patients treated from Jan. 28-Feb. 1, Janet Atlow of Pearl noted that insurance was one of the reasons she has been unable to see a dentist since breaking her tooth last year.

“Because of diabetes, you have to take care of your dental health very well,” Atlow said. “You’re supposed to go every six months, but I’ve been having trouble because of my insurance. It’s expensive, but a lot of places won’t take it and the out-of-pocket costs are just too high. I’ve been searching for a place that will just take my insurance, but then I found Dental Mission Week.”

Dental students Emison Geiger, Dutton Day and Dalton Thompson high-five Wilkins Elementary students on their way to Give Kids a Smile Day.
Dental students Emison Geiger, Dutton Day and Dalton Thompson high-five Wilkins Elementary students on their way to Give Kids a Smile Day.

“I have a relationship with the development team here at UMMC and that’s how I met Dr. Koka,” said Leigh Pace, market president for Hancock Whitney Jackson. “I just asked them how we could get involved. We decided that Dental Mission Week fit what we feel like was a need in Jackson. It really helps people all over Mississippi. We felt like donating to Dental Mission Week was our way of entering the market and at the same time helping a huge part of the population.”

In addition to providing necessary oral care to Mississippians during Dental Mission Week, students and faculty in the School of Dentistry also visited Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson for “Give Kids a Smile Day”.

Melody Longino

“Prior to the pandemic, the SOD would host two local schools to come for care at the School of Dentistry,” said Melody Longino, the school’s manager of ambulatory operations and coordinator of Dental Mission Week. “As requirements changed to comply with COVID-19, so did our methods of reaching our children.

“Instead of coming to us, we took the show on the road; although limited, it still provided much needed education and training on how to brush, why we brush and how to maintain good oral hygiene. Since the pandemic, the event has gone to three different elementary schools in the Jackson area. The success of this new method has broadened our ability to reach even more children. However, our goal for GKAS 2025 is to get the children back in the clinics for direct patient care.”

To learn more about or support Dental Mission Week, please contact Dr. Sheila Henderson at 60-815-3302 or sahenderson@umc.edu.