Something to smile about
Santa Fe, UF partnership helping local residents get much-needed dental care
By Stacey Marquis
Rekha Reddy, a senior UF dental student, remembers when she saw a woman break down in happy tears after a dentist appointment.
Reddy is a dental liaison for the We Care Clinic, a program housed in the Santa Fe Dental Clinic on select Mondays, where members of the Gainesville community can receive limited dental services for free or at extremely reduced cost.
After working with the We Care program for three years, Reddy remembers this woman’s gratitude for the Santa Fe College dental hygiene student who made her pain go away during a We Care Clinic night.
“She said ‘You don’t understand, I’ve been in pain for so long and you helped me tonight,’” Reddy said. “‘You got me out of pain and I’ll forever be grateful to you. You’re my angel.’ I thought that was very touching.”
Staffed by students of Santa Fe College’s dental hygiene program under the supervision of faculty members from UF’s College of Dentistry and Santa Fe College, the We Care Clinic helps patients receive care they may not have been able to afford otherwise. Dental students and dental hygiene students have an opportunity to work on real patients as part of their program, the faculty members volunteer and give back to the community. “We’ve seen a huge rise in ER visits with people who are in pain because they just have nowhere else to go,” said Jessica Peterson, who coordinates the program. “At that point, in the ER, they don’t have dentists on staff. All they can really do is give the patient antibiotics and pain medicine, and they still haven’t dealt with the problem. We really try to go in and help as many people as we can, as long as they qualify for our program.”
Often, patients are booked for We Care Clinic nights a month to two months in advance. The most common services that patients come in for are fillings and extractions, Peterson said. Starting at 6 p.m. and running to about 9 p.m. on Mondays throughout each semester, she said 12 to 15 people are usually scheduled for each We Care Clinic.
“It can be a little chaotic at times because there are so many people who need help, and a lot of times at the beginning we kind of look at the stacks of folders in front of us and think, ‘How are we going to get through all of these patients today?’” Reddy said. “But, with the help of … the dental students (and) great faculty, we somehow manage to get through it.”
Peterson said the We Care program used to function as a referral program, where patients would come in and the staff would try to find a private dentist in the community who would help them at a reduced cost. This method wasn’t sustainable, she said, because there were too many patients coming in and not enough private dentists to help.
At that point, Peterson said, the Santa Fe College Dental Clinic stepped up and allowed the We Care Clinics to borrow their dental suite. The We Care staff works on a volunteer basis and funding is provided through grants.
“With We Care, we get funding from the health department and the Alachua County Dental Association and the (Alachua County) Medical Society,” she said. “We also go out and try to find grants to buy the supplies.”
Timothy Garvey, D.M.D., a faculty member within the College of Dentistry’s department of pediatric dentistry and one of the founders of the We Care Clinic, said the program was created with no administrative baggage or bureaucratic obstacles.
“I like that it’s a real, homegrown, grassroots thing where there is very little red tape,” Garvey said. “It was just people sitting down, thinking, ‘Let’s do this.’”
The Santa Fe College Dental Clinic has housed the We Care Clinic since 1993. Since then, according to an informational document about the program, patients have benefited from more than $1.5 million in volunteer dental care.
Although Garvey has been volunteering with the We Care Clinic for about 12 years, one patient sticks in his mind: a woman in her late 20s.
“We did a lot of surgery on her . . . a lot of fillings, and things like that,” Garvey said. “It got to the point where we made her some new teeth. I remember the day we gave them to her. She saw them and started crying and said ‘Now I can go out and get a job.’ It’s hard to be able to do things in a normal way out in society when you smile and you have no teeth.”
Once all of the patients have been helped and the clinic’s doors are closed, the staff feel like they’ve made a difference.
“At the end of the night, we’re so, so happy with what we’ve accomplished,” Reddy said. “It’s a really wonderful feeling knowing that we were able to help so many people.”