Dentistry as a Corporal Work of Mercy: I’m in America Magazine

Dentistry as a Corporal Work of Mercy: I’m in America Magazine October 4, 2019

showing you my teeth :E

Teeth are our biographers. They record the difficult paths we have walked in life and place the evidence on display. In discolored, broken or missing teeth anyone can read our history of difficult circumstances or bad decisions: childhood neglect, lifelong poverty, depression, addiction. And so healing the teeth can be a first step in restoring hope and giving us a chance to tell a new story with our lives.

For a long time, Nicole Rouse’s teeth told a story she hated. “I had really bad TMJ; I had no control over my jaw,” she says, referring to temporomandibular joint disorder, which causes jaw pain. “[It] was making me bite my tongue till it bled.” Her jaw problems were a symptom of the many stressful aspects of Ms. Rouse’s life. She had come to Toronto from British Columbia to be with a boyfriend, but the relationship fell apart and she ended up on the streets; she had mental health issues, which included addiction; she became involved in a series of abusive relationships; she had a criminal record; her children would not speak to her. Her teeth were rotting from a combination of neglect, drunken accidents, violent abuse and chemotherapy to treat a bout with cancer. One tooth started hurting so badly that she just yanked it out herself.

Ms. Rouse faced a huge array of obstacles to obtaining dental care. Perhaps the most universal one was the most basic: money. Dental care is not treated like other forms of medical care. Even in Canada, which has a single payer health care system, dental care is not included; and coverage can be spotty. In the United States, Medicaid does not require dental coverage for adults, though all states cover children. Even states with robust plans, like New York, cover only select services for adults. Medicare also does not cover most dental care. As of 2016, the number of Americans without dental insurance was four times the number of those without health insurance, and insurance often covers only a small portion of the cost of care. Some people seek more affordable arrangements, like getting care at a dental school, where treatment typically costs about half the price of private care but can still amount to thousands of dollars. In 2018, the financial website Earnin teamed up with the Harris Poll and found that a majority of Americans said they had delayed some form of health care in the past year because of cost; the most commonly postponed form of care was dental work. …

Dr. Parita Patel, dental director at Baltimore’s Health Care for the Homeless, says: “A lot of our clients have a history of trauma, a history of substance abuse. Restoring something as simple as their teeth and their smile brings them back to a time when they were healthier. There’s a part of the denture-making process where they try on their teeth, and it’s a very emotional one even as a provider, because they take a look in the mirror. You will see adults so happy and saying, ‘It’s been decades since I’ve seen that face.’”

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