In the New River Valley, 25 percent of adults over 60 have lost all their teeth.
And it starts early. Tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease in children between 5 and 17 years old – four times more common than asthma. Rural children are less likely to have insurance and receive dental health care than urban children.
For 30 years, Margot Thompson, volunteering with an NRV free clinic, had witnessed this problem of education, culture, and unequal access to care of teeth.
“Margot saw people and swam their faces and knew their stories and the 3-4 months waiting to be seen by a doctor,” Joe Thompson said. “There were so many coins: dimes and nickels and pennies. It dawned on us that to make co-pay was so hard. People were looking in drawers and piggy banks to come up with 5 dollars to pay for the doctor,” Joe Thompson recalled.
Together, Joe and Margot Thompson set out to address the problem of inadequate and inconsistent dental health resources in the NRV. They founded Dental Aid Partners of the New River Valley in 2009.
Last week, Christiansburg Mayor Michael Barber presented them with a plaque and a key to the town for their generosity and service to the community in collaboration with the Community Foundation of the New River Valley.
“Margot and I were amazingly surprised at the presentation. We only accept that on behalf of our present and past Board of Directors. Eleven people who, over the years have done all these things, with not a great deal of funding, and made all that happen. People continue to pop up to offer help and financing. For me it’s so gratifying.”
The organization’s mission is to facilitate dental and oral health through early education and by delivering care to citizens who struggle to afford it
The organization emphasizes childhood education and a culture of dental health that may stay with them throughout their lives and trickle up to their parents.
Through DAPNRV, all of the region’s first graders learn about proper dental hygiene and receive free toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, and dental screenings at elementary schools.
“We’re not naïve about floss,” Thompson said laughing, “But what we’ve heard is for a number of students in the first grade these are their first toothbrushes.”
Working to strengthen a culture that values dental health equal to medical health, the organization trains school nurses in Montgomery County about dental issues. Nurses use puppets to demonstrate good oral health.
“We expect to be doing this for decades to slowly change the culture,” Thompson said.
In five years, more than 6,000 NRV children have received services.
Although funding is unreliable, state and federal healthcare programs like FAMIS and CHIP, exist to support dental care for children, but not for adults.
To provide dental care for low-income adults, beginning in 2012, DAPNRV began holding single-day, free dental care clinics. Each day, the clinics served 190 people who received services including fillings, extractions, root canals, and cleaning according to the NRVSmiles web site.
In 2015, recognizing that the dental health care need was chronic throughout the valley, DAPNRV established a year-round effort called Dental Aid Day, or DAD.
Through the DAD program, participating dentists in the New River Valley volunteer their services all year long to treat financially qualified patients.
Since the DAD launch, more than 700 NRV residents have received dental care.
“Virtually all dentist do pro bono work, I can’t say enough good things about the volunteer dentists in our programs and others. Outstanding people,” Thompson said.
“Two years ago, our organization held a dentures clinic in a dental office in Pulaski in which two dentists created dentures for eight of our low-income neighbors. Asked what dentures meant to them, they said, ‘I can eat. First thing I’m going to eat is peanuts’ and another said with teeth he could sing. Some people had not had teeth for six years,” Thompson recounted.
There are very few efforts like ours. We’re volunteers we get no funding from the state or other orgs. Dental Aid NRV targets 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or less. Our general needs focus is the working poor above those poverty guidelines where there’s a big gap,” he said.
The community health center does a lot to help fill in that gap. There are things going on, but in the broader sense, dentistry is expensive and for good reason, but inaccessible.
Addressing the sustainability of the programs, Joe and Margot Thompson have established an endowment, the Dental Benevolent Fund of the NRV. But while Virginia and the nation support medical health care, dental health is not valued equally.
“I have almost zero optimism in a magic bullet. Dentistry and medical are separate fields. Medicare, Medicaid, emergency room care. There’s nothing like that for dentistry. To include dentists in Medicaid so folks can access dental care. The magic bullet would be to include dentistry in Medicaid.”
Mayor Barber and the Town Council extended many thanks for the Thompson’s work in providing invaluable dental care and resources to thousands of citizens in the NRV.
“Marg and I were amazingly surprised at the presentation. We only accept that on behalf of our present and past Board of Directors. Eleven people who, over the years have done all these things, with not a great deal of funding, and made all that happen. People continue to pop up to offer help and financing. For me it’s so gratifying.”
The organization serves Montgomery, Floyd, Giles, and Pulaski Counties and the City of Radford. For more information or to contribute to the organization, visit www.nrvsmiles.org