Say “cheese!”

For those without resources for dental health, a big smile can be a source of anxiety. In Seaside, there is an option for those without dental insurance or in economic distress. With Medical Teams International and Providence Seaside’s patient navigator, Justin Abbott, the Healthy Smiles program offers free dental care for children and adults.

On the day of my visit, two dental chairs in the van were occupied and patients were scheduled throughout the day.

Through September, in Seaside alone the van has seen 197 patients and provided more than $112,000 worth of dental care to patients.

In 2017, the van performs more than 1,000 procedures; this year as of Oct. 1, that number stood at 664.

The van averages about eight patient visits a day, Abbott said.

Patients often find out about the van at health fairs like Seaside’s annual “Homeless Connect,” on recommendations from friends, or on a walk-in basis.

Patients must meet the following requirements: a family income less than 200% of the federal poverty line; no private insurance; and no realistic ability to pay for or access urgent dental care — treating symptoms including dental pain, swelling, tooth decay or infection.

Based in Tigard, 12 vans travel to hospitals, churches and rehab facilities throughout the Northwest as far north as Canada and as far south as California.

On-site patients will find a dentist, dental assistant and sometimes a hygienist, dental program coordinator Valerie Mortenson said.

Mortenson said patients are often in “dire need” of medical treatment, requiring numbing, extractions and antibiotics. Since the van is always moving from place to place, ongoing treatment must be coordinated at the van’s other locations, including Portland.

Seaside’s Dr. Scott Santos is one of several local dentists — with Dr. Jon Bletscher of North Coast Dental, Astoria’s Jeremiah Shakespear, and Dr. Bryce Evans of Seaside Dental Clinic — to donate their time and services to the program.

“We’ve been involved with it for about 15 years,” Santos said between dental van patients. “It’s a way to give back a little bit our time, our services to patients that don’t always have the resources or abilities to take care of some of their basic dental needs.”

He said he often sees people who haven’t had dental care “for a long time.”

“We take it on a case-by case basis,” Santos said. “We see what the situation is, anything from fillings to gum issues, infections. We can’t treat the entire mouth — unfortunately if we had the time we could.”

Volunteering is a great way to help patients, Santos said. “The goal for all of us in the profession is to help people and get people feeling better. Our area happens to be in the mouth.”

Dental assistant Alyssa Oja seconded that. “It definitely makes you feel good to get people out of pain and help them feel better,” she said.

The team envisions a time when the van could be in Seaside more often.

“We’re here every couple of months, four times a year,” Mortenson said. “So I think it would be good to have it once a month, for people who have a hard time accessing medical care and dental care, people on Medicare who don’t have dental plans.

“That’s the reason a lot of people avoid dental care, because they don’t have the funds or the finances, and insurance is expensive,” she added.

Mortenson, who was heading to St. Helens next, said driving the van is like navigating a horse and buggy. “Bouncy! I have to strap everything down.”

With cabinets full of equipment, organization is at top of mind.

“When I first started it was an hour set up an hour teardown,” Mortenson said. “Now I can do it in 15 minutes.”

As she travels around the region, she said she finds big rewards in her work.

“Big smiles! It warms their heart,” Mortenson said. “It’s very helpful for people. I’m lucky to be able to come out here and help the community.

For more information, call Providence Seaside at 503-717-7174. For a list of mobile dental clinics throughout the state, visit www.medicalteams.org.

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