Filling the gap
Twelve-year-old Khadijah Lee was telling her friend she wasn't afraid to have her lone remaining baby tooth pulled.
"It's painful when I eat," Khadijah said of the infected tooth. "I'm just ready for it to come out."
But reality set in as the dentist picked up the Novocain-filled needle and asked her to open wide.
"This is going to sting a little bit," said Dr. Jerry Bondurant.
A gaggle of classmates peeked in the room, a classroom converted to a dental clinic at Chandler Elementary School in Charleston.
"They numbed me. They shot me," said Khadijah, "Oh, just kill me."
Moments later, Bondurant wiggled the molar loose with a pair of forceps, and Khadijah was out of the chair and in the hallway, showing off the bloody hole in the roof of her mouth to classmates.
Khadijah, a sixth-grader at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, is one of thousands of Kanawha County students who receive free dental care, thanks to the nonprofit Kanawha Dental Health Council.
The group started 50 years ago, founded by dentists who wanted to serve low-income children on Charleston's West Side.
For years, the organization was housed in the basement of the former Tiskelwah Elementary School, which closed in the 1990s.
Now, free dental services are offered to schoolchildren at seven sites in Kanawha County: Chandler, Sissonville, Bridgeview, Clendenin and Elk elementary schools; Carver Career and Technical Education Center; and St. Albans High School.
Students who qualify for the program ride buses to the nearest school where they get their teeth cleaned and X-rayed. Dentists also extract teeth, fill cavities and apply sealants to prevent decay.
"If they're in pain, they get taken care of immediately," said Lisa Moore, who has directed the dental health program for 12 years. "They can't learn if they hurt."
The nonprofit employs two dentists - Bondurant and Dr. Amy Potesta. The group is searching for a third dentist.
The council also just forged ties with West Virginia University's School of Dentistry. Dental students in their fourth year are expected to volunteer in Kanawha County schools, and WVU already has donated three dentist chairs.
Four hygienists and another four dental assistants also work in the school dental clinics.
The hygienists clean teeth, provide fluoride treatments and speak to groups of parents and students about oral health. They'll talk to children as young as 3 in Head Start preschool programs.
"We have mothers in their 20s and 30s who come in here with no teeth," Moore said. "They don't see the value of coming to the dentist. Teeth are important to overall health. Children don't always get that message at home."
The dental council's $450,000-a-year budget is funded by the Kanawha County Commission, state Children's Dentistry Project, the United Way and private donations. Local dentists also donate supplies.
Charleston orthodontists provide free services to children referred by the council.
At the beginning of each school year, children receive an application from the council. They're asked whether they're seeing a private dentist. If they aren't, a hygienist will call their home and encourage them to enroll in the program if they're eligible.
Most students who take advantage of free- and reduced-price lunches also qualify for free dental services. Children with dental insurance don't qualify.
Dental disease is the single most prevalent chronic childhood disease. Sixty-five percent of West Virginia children have cavities by age 8, according to a West Virginia Healthy People study. Cavity rates are highest among children from low-income families.
Bondurant has worked on the teeth of low-income Charleston students for more than 30 years. He typically sees 20 to 25 students a day.
He's confident, calm and puts children at ease.
"We have dentists who know how to communicate with these kids," Moore said. "These kids need continuity. When you're 4 years old, the last thing you want to see when you come back to the dentist is a stranger."
The clinic's hygienists also provide reassurance to children.
On a recent morning, Peggy Marchal walked over and held Khadijah's hand after she received the shot of Novocain.
"There's nothing to be scared about," Marchal said.
Marchal has worked with Kanawha County schoolchildren for 22 years in the program.
"When I was a kid, I was scared to see a dentist, so I do all I can to keep them from being afraid," she said.
After Khadijah relaxed, Marchal moved to another dentist chair to finish cleaning a boy's teeth.
Minutes later, a school bus pulled up for the return trip to the middle school.
The seventh-grader boarded the bus with a smile. Marchal was smiling, too.
"Bless his heart. He said, 'Thank you,'" Marchal said.
To contact the Kanawha Dental Health Council, call 348-6613.
To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.
Eyre's coverage of dental health in West Virginia is being supported by a fellowship from the Kaiser Family Foundation.