Eleven-year-old Mammoth Elementary School student Giovanni Cruz was all smiles, even though he was sitting in a dentist’s chair getting his teeth examined.
He couldn’t talk, but he smiled with that wide-open smile all dental patients learn to perfect, blue bib tight against his chest, protective plastic goggles covering his brown eyes. The room was full of other students like him, prone on their dental chairs. Others filed quietly in, waiting their turn.
Cruz’s dental provider, Minakshi Gupta, a UCLA dental student on her spring break (along with 14 other students), probed gently at his teeth looking for cavities or other problems. If she finds any, she writes them down in a report that will go to his parents.
But the focus of her visit Wednesday morning was on preventing problems in the first place. To do that, she and the rest of the students are providing a protective sealant and other basic services for every Mammoth Unified Elementary, Middle and pre-school student whose parents have given permission for such services—around 440 children by the end of this week. And they’re doing it free of charge.
“Sealing teeth can reduce decay by more than 70 percent if done properly,” said Lindley Zertae, a fourth year student. “It’s the best prevention method available.”
He showed me one little six-year-old girl in another chair. Her mouth was full of cavities; one bad enough to need immediate attention. If her permanent teeth can be sealed with the sealant, this kind of problem will be much less likely, he said.
The dental students are in Mammoth under a program initiated by Mono County’s First Five Director, Kathy Peterson. Peterson became familiar with a state program called Miles of Smiles when she worked in Inyo County and she has been doing the legwork to bring the program to Mono County for the past several years.
Finally this year, the timing of the students’ spring break and Mammoth Unified’s schedule coincided and the dental students made the trip. They receive free housing for the four-day fair, courtesy of the Mono County Board of Supervisors who invested in a fund to pay for it. And Mammoth Mountain is helping the students out with ski passes, Peterson said. They also get credit for their work in Mammoth, making the dental fair a good deal for both the students and Mammoth Unified’s children who might otherwise not see a dentist due to cost.
Peterson said the students also participated in an assembly earlier this week where they learned about basic dental hygiene—things like brushing and flossing.
That, too, has been effective, said Mammoth Middle School Principal Annie Rinaldi.
“There were students hearing about flossing for the first time,” she said. “And you know how self conscious middle schoolers are about their appearance. They took it seriously. After that, we got even more permission slips! I think it will make a difference.”
“It’s a great program,” said Mammoth Elementary school Principal Roseanne Lampariello. “It sets the students up for better performance at school, if they are not distracted by tooth problems.”
The Surgeon General recently noted that about 51 million school hours a year are lost to dental-related illnesses, many of those illnesses undiagnosed due to cost and access issues.
Peterson said the real credit for the success of the program, both here in Mammoth and in many other schools, goes to UCLA Assistant Professor Division of Public Health and Community Dentistry Nancy Reifel.
Reifel, who was in Mammoth supervising the dental students, said community dentistry has always been a passion of hers and working with communities to do early sealant programs is one of her highest priorities.
“It’s something that can be done relatively easily and inexpensively and it’s simply so effective,” she said. “It doesn’t take the students out of class for more than 20 minutes to a half hour, and that makes it easier for parents and the schools to consider this as an option.”
The program also helps parents figure out where they can take their child for more advanced care and how to pay for it, Peterson said. She also said the Miles of Smiles program was not a substitute for an individual dental care program for each student; rather it was a way to help with such a program.
Peterson said the program this week at the elementary and middle school has been so successful, she hopes to expand to include the Eastern Sierra Unified School District next year.
“I think we will be able to make that happen,” she said.
Superintendent Rich Boccia noted none of this would have happened without Peterson, whose previous relationship with the program, and Reifel, brought it to the attention of the district. He was especially impressed with the number of permission slips returned, especially at the elementary school, where more than 50 percent of the slips sent out were signed and returned.