Last summer, the Will County Health Department’s Community Health Center Mobile Dental Van had reached a crossroads. Dr. Francis Tan had stepped aside as the van’s main dentist. And Certified Dental Assistant Lendita Istogu, a veteran of the Mobile Van and its driver since 2011, was watching some of the van’s stops bring in only a handful of patients.
That’s when Community Health Center Chief Dental Officer Dr. Sangita Garg stepped in as the van’s main dentist, asked that the Mobile Dental Van be given another chance, and went to work with Istogu to bring more awareness of the mobile van and its services.
Now, as we go through February’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, the Mobile Dental Van finds itself in a resurgence. For example, while the van served 475 patients from July of 2016 to January of 2017, it served 622 over the exact same period one year later.
Dr. Garg credits Istogu’s passion for the Mobile Van’s mission for this turnaround. “Now we have more patients than we can handle. Lendita is very committed about contacting the schools, scheduling, paperwork and follow-up. She works a lot of long hours.”
Istogu looks upon the Community Health Center’s Mobile Dental Van as her mission in life. “I work like I own this van. I believe in ‘do what it takes,’ not ‘this is just my job, I want to be done and go home.’”
When it comes to new locations now on the van’s schedule, Istogu says it’s important to remember that the Health Department serves a large area. “Will County is so big. So many families might not have transportation. So we now have a new stop up north in Romeoville, plus down south in Wilmington to serve the Wilmington-Braidwood-Braceville area.”
Dr. Garg and Istogu both say one new stop that has brought loads of response is the Evergreen Terrace housing complex in Joliet. “We need them to trust us,” Istogu explained. “And they are very comfortable with us coming there. Some days are so busy that we just have to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re coming back!’”
And although much of the Mobile Dental Van’s mission involves bringing dental services to adults, such as those living at Frankfort Terrace Nursing Center in Frankfort, the mission of dental care for children was first and foremost on everyone’s mind during the van’s recent stop at Rockdale Elementary School.
Garg says an important statistic to remember during National Children’s Dental Health Month has been cited by the National Education Association. “The NEA says that over 50 million hours of school are missed nationwide each year because of dental issues such as tooth pain. Then you have the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) telling us that one in five children between the ages of five and 11 are walking around with at least one untreated tooth decay. This is totally preventable.”
As Dr. Garg has also previously stated, the more dental problems a child has, the more fear can set in. “Some children all of a sudden show up at the CHC Dental Clinic or at our Mobile Dental Van at about age five with a long list of problems. We have children who are very scared, and also adults who are scared. But dentistry has changed over the years, and many people do not realize that.”
And this is why, Dr. Garg says, the slogan the Mobile Dental Van presents to the schools it serves is “Early Intervention for Prevention.” She says the mobile van is providing both a service, as well as an education, for many families.
“We are always sending parents paperwork and information on what they need to do. So many of these children have never seen a dentist before. We work with the school nurses on being able to call them back for follow-ups. It’s really true that parents can lead by example. If they ignore their oral health, it could also happen to their kids. It can affect your eating, speaking, learning, and your entire health.”
The Mobile Dental Van is currently working with Midwestern Dental School out of Downers Grove. Fourth year students do two-week sessions assisting with patient care. “They have been a tremendous help,” Dr. Garg said. “This is a great experience for them and help for us. It’s a win-win situation.”
During the recent stop at Rockdale Elementary, Midwestern Dental students Ulka Patel from Geneva and Jordon Lee from Westmont were on the job for the second day. Both stated they were already realizing the impact the mobile van makes. “It’s a wonderful thing to be treating the kids as well as teaching them,” Patel said.
Lee agreed. “This van is pretty nice. It gives populations access to care that they might be missing.”
“Access to care” was the exact theme Rockdale Elementary School Nurse Victoria Kipilla emphasized. “This service is huge for the kids. We have lots of students that have moved in from out of state. And of course, dental exams are required at certain ages. In fact, we refer families to the Will County Health Department quite often; from dental care, to medical care, to immunizations.”
So throughout National Children’s Dental Health Month and year-round, the effort to bring dental care to the children and the entire population of Will County will continue. Anyone interested in locations for the Mobile Dental Van, or in seeing if you could schedule a stop at your school or organization, is asked to call the Community Health Center Dental Clinic at 815-774-7300.