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Smile Patrol

You know the drill.

You’re at the dentist’s office and the dental hygienist strides into the room.

The leather chair swivels and the bright lamp shines overhead.

As the poking and prodding starts, your heart beats faster.

You cling to the armrest and clench your jaw — bracing yourself. “Open wide!”

It’s common for people to fear the dentist and avoid making their next appointment.

But many Tennessee residents put off treatment because they simply can’t afford it.

That’s why the Department of Dental Hygiene at Hiwassee College is helping them achieve a whiter, brighter and healthier smile at no cost.

Poor oral health is a significant issue in rural communities.

Limited transportation and lack of funds make it difficult for people to get the dental care they need.

Hiwassee College, which has offered dental care to the underserved of Monroe County on its campus since 2010, recently opened a mobile unit that offers free dental care for residents of East Tennessee.

Two dental hygiene students, along with a clinical assistant, provide preventive services such as cleanings, sealants and radiographs.

The mobile unit is equipped with lightweight X-ray equipment, portable drills and other dental instruments to treat patients who require basic dental services.

Students often treat patients who haven’t seen a dentist in years.

“We want to make services available regardless of a person’s financial situation,” says Randa Colbert, interim director of dental hygiene at Hiwassee College.

“We don’t have qualifications that patients have to meet to be treated by us.”

During these appointments students encourage patients to be diligent and keep up with oral hygiene.

Having regular dental check-ups can reduce their risk of gingivitis (gum inflammation), periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss.

“Most of our patients have periodontal disease, so we deliver nonsurgical treatment that can help them,” Colbert says.

“But we also work on educating patients on how they can perform adequate home care such as brushing and flossing.”

When patients require more specialized care, they have somewhere to turn. Hiwassee College has a partnership with the Monroe County Health Department to refer patients who need additional services.

Students gain hands-on experience while patients receive necessary dental treatment in a kind and compassionate environment.

“The students have all the tools they need to perform their tasks, and they get plenty of one-on-one time with patients without many distractions,” Colbert says.

“The potential that the dental unit has is really exciting.”

Photos by Ben Finch.

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