By Courtney Harrell | University Communications
Five-and-a-half-year-old Mackenzie Baker wants you to know three things about her: she knows how to curl her own hair, a boy in her class likes her and she loves brushing her teeth. She tells everyone as she walks down the hall of the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus with her younger brother, there for his very first dentist appointment.
“I need a new toothbrush,” Mackenzie tells her dentist seriously as soon as she’s seated in the dental chair.
“Well,” her dentist says, equally seriously, “we’ll take care of that.”
Mackenzie and her 20-month-old brother came to the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora for the 12th annual Give Kids a Smile (GKAS) Day to not only get new toothbrushes, but also to have their teeth cleaned, their cavities filled, their baby teeth pulled and anything else that needed to be done to make their mouths healthy. GKAS Day, a national program sponsored by the American Dental Association, provides thousands of underserved children 18 and under with this kind of dental care every year at no cost.
This year, 44 dental students, seven dentists, seven dental hygienists, and a lot of dedicated staff from the CU School of Dental Medicine partnered with 16 dental professionals from the metro Denver area to provide dental care to 140 kids like Mackenzie and Levi. For many of these children, GKAS Day is the only time in the year that they see a dentist, and it’s vital that they do.
“There’s no question that oral health is closely linked to systematic health,” says Heidi Tyrrell, manager of CU Heroes Clinic, clinical instructor at the CU School of Dental Medicine and director of this year’s GKAS Day. “The mouth is not an island—it affects the whole body physically and mentally. An infection can easily pass into the blood stream through the mouth and affect the rest of the body, so oral health is extremely important. Not to mention the fact that if kids have oral pain or disease it affects their eating habits, performance in school, speech development, sleep and self-esteem. We’re working on more than just teeth—we’re working on whole lives.”
Working toward prevention
Down the hall from Mackenzie and her brother, Maria Tolbert stands over her 3-year-old grandson, Kristopher, his mouth wide open “like a crocodile” for his dentist. This is the fifth year that Tolbert has brought three of her grandchildren, but only the second year that Kristopher, her fourth and youngest grandchild, has joined them.
Kristopher looks relaxed as the dental student cleans his teeth. He reaches up occasionally to play with the light shining in his mouth, clearly enjoying his experience at the dentist.
“Kristopher was so excited to come this morning,” Tolbert says. “He likes making his teeth shiny, and he remembers the toy duck the dentist gave him last year.” She pulls out a picture on her phone of Kristopher, a year younger, squeezing an inflatable duck in the dentist chair.
“I brush my teeth at home, too!” Kristopher says when the dental student, now finishing his work, brushes Kristopher’s teeth. Tolbert smiles.
“That’s why I always bring them, why I never miss this day,” Tolbert says. “I want them to see the importance of their teeth, to watch the dentists show them how to brush in the mirror and to want to keep their teeth that pretty when they go home.”
It’s that idea, making kids want to brush their teeth and getting them through the next year without cavities that makes GKAS Day so important. Oral disease is completely preventable, and yet children living in poverty often suffer from untreated tooth decay. Nearly 60 percent of low-income kindergartners in Colorado have suffered from tooth decay, and more than one in four of those children is not treated. As a result, an estimated 7.8 million hours of school are lost every year because of oral pain and infection. Of course, GKAS Day is there to fix those problems when they exist, but Tyrrell says she wants to be proactive and prevent the problems before they begin.
“There’s no question when you’re a dentist and you see active disease or tooth decay in a little mouth,” Tyrrell says. “We’ll take care of that. But I think we can do more. We don’t just want to provide restorative care, but also work toward prevention. We can do both! And this year we are.”
For Kristopher, the preventative care is already working. Thanks to his toothbrush instruction last year, this year, Kristopher is cavity-free.
Giving back to the community
Tyrrell says GKAS Day is about more than just providing free dental care and education; it’s also an opportunity to inspire her dental students to give back to their community. Kristin Haun, a fourth-year dental student, is one of the many students who volunteers at GKAS Day to serve the Aurora and Denver communities.
“Today I worked with a 9-year-old girl from Vietnam who just moved to the United States,” Haun says. “She doesn’t speak any English, she can’t get Medicaid for five years and she had a mouth full of cavities and baby teeth. Now, her mouth is healthy. I’ve volunteered at GKAS Day for the past five years because of kids like her. It’s so wonderful to see how grateful they are when we help them get healthy. It’s a hard feeling to beat.”
At the end of GKAS Day, everyone feels good—the dental students who have helped their community, the parents who have received free dental care and the kids with healthy teeth. On their way out the door, every child is equipped with a gift bag of toothbrushes, toothpaste, referrals for low-cost dental care in Colorado and a guide to healthy nutrition. Mackenzie, also cavity-free at the end of the day, is especially excited about her bright red toothbrush, which she is already using to brush her “20 shiny teeth” as she walks out the door.
Published: February 16, 2015