UTHealth Event Brings Smiles and Free Dental Care to Houston-area Immigrants

Jeylin Hernandez Carmona took the news surprisingly well for a 9-year-old child.

A tiny piece of her baby tooth was stuck inside her gumline, a dental student said, showing the white fragment in an X-ray image. That was what was causing him pain.

“I think they’re going to take that away,” fourth-year student Elizabeth Cutbirth said. “Are you OK?”

“Yes!” Carmona said cheerfully before explaining the prognosis to her mother in Spanish. Originally from Honduras, the mother and daughter were among nearly 200 uninsured or underinsured Houston-area families who received free dental care Friday at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry.

The school annually hosts the Give Kids a Smile program, which provides thousands of dollars worth of dental cleanings and emergency treatment to children referred by the San Jose clinic or the local Communities in Schools program. Many of the children, like Carmona, were immigrants who lack insurance and face at least a partial language barrier.

Even for those with a Medicaid plan, the lack of reliable transportation and hectic work schedules complicate the process of seeking dental care.

“Some of the very young in underserved communities have very serious dental problems that require extraction,” said Dr. Antonio Cardenas, professor of pediatric dentistry at UTHealth. “Some of them have to go to the hospital and sleep through the whole treatment because they are sometimes two or three years old.”

The Greater Houston area had the highest number of uninsured residents in the nation in 2019, with nearly one in five people in the metro area without health coverage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among children enrolled in Medicaid, few receive required dental services, according to a 2016 study by the Department of Health and Human Services. The pandemic has also led to fewer visits to dental offices, said Dr. Margo Melchor, associate professor in the Department of Periodontics and Dental Hygiene and UTHealth School of Dentistry.

“We don’t have teledentistry yet,” she said. “So you have people who don’t go out if they have a toothache or something. They were probably just smiling and putting up with it.

A bill passed in the previous legislative session allowing teledentistry in the state, but the logistics are still being worked out, Melchor said.

For many children at the clinic Friday was the first time they had received dental care. Fourth-year dental students and professional volunteers took care of their immediate needs and talked to families about keeping gums and teeth healthy. But the school also tries to connect families with a “dental home” where they can receive consistent and affordable long-term care.

The environment put some parents at ease in an unfamiliar country. Creusa Athu, from Bazil, brought her two boys to the clinic for the second year in a row.

“It helps us feel welcome,” she said.

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