Open Wide - The Official Blog of The Chicago Dental Society

Permanent link  Dental clinic on wheels treats the underserved


Please welcome Rachel Zanders, a writer who will be posting to this blog from time to time. Rachel is also a contributor toGapers Block, where she covers Chicago's dance community.

Carsickness is not an on-the-job risk you'd expect a dentist to face, but Dr. Amy Martin laughingly recalls suffering from that malady during her first days as dental resident with Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center's (IMMC) Mobile Dental Program.

Dr. Harvey Wigdor
initiated the program in 1999 after witnessing one of these fully equipped dental offices on wheels at an ADA meeting. He saw an opportunity for our city, found a few foundations that were interested in funding the program, and drove a new van from Portland, Oregon, over the Rockies to Chicago.

The original van and its equipment--dental equipment that has spent a decade suffering Chicago's pothole-infested streets--have been retired in favor of a new and improved facility. Whereas the first van consisted of an open room with two dentists' chairs, the new 38-foot-long van boasts a waiting room and two independent private treatment rooms.

The program serves twenty partners--organizations and centers with underserved populations such as homeless shelters, senior centers, and schools. Sitting in the van's waiting room, you're sure to hear "Any change since last time?" or witness the handing off of an appointment reminder card--indications of continuity in this nomadic establishment. Dr. Martin, now Assistant Director for the program, says these are "very reliable patients." Just about everything that can be done onboard is either free or very discounted, but most patients at the regular partner sites "pay a little bit for what they get, and that allows them to take ownership."

In addition to the regular monthly partner site visits, the van accompanies The Night Ministry once a month to widely varying locations around the city to provide dental services completely free of charge. Dr. Adrian Codel, who first stepped onto the van as a resident in 2001 and now serves as the attending dentist on the Night Ministry outings, gets a kick out of their "groupies," individuals who somehow find and get to the van every month for treatment. The residents "build a relationship with the 'regulars' and come to know what they need."

The van is equipped for just about any dental procedure the patients might require, from cleanings and extractions to endodontics. The Dental Van is a part of the residency curriculum at IMMC, and Dr. Wigdor sees this as a "tremendous opportunity. The van is perfect for the community health component."

Dr. Codel adds that, not only do residents receive an extraordinary clinical experience (students are likely to perform "less than five extractions in dental school," but will perform the procedure innumerable times on the van); they also come to understand how to "manage this patient population. When you might not see the patient again, your approach is different."

Dr. Martin recalls that she "didn't love it as a resident. I was carsick. It was tight quarters. And residents feel outside of their element." But it's "very satisfying, very gratifying to help the people who we help," and when the Assistant Director position opened up around the end of her residency, she "jumped at the chance."

When asked for unusual anecdotes, Dr. Martin points out that "everything is unusual here." She says the patients are "very thankful. A lot of patients will bake us cookies or knit us something when they're done with their treatment." And always appreciated, although it might not be the most appropriate token for those in the dental profession: "We get lots of donuts."

Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center will be hosting an open house for its new dental van, from 4-6 p.m. on September 9, at the hospital. Weather permitting, the event will be held on the west pavilion of the hospital. 


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