By Shelby Williamson, senior communication specialist in the Office of Marketing and Communication
One morning each week, Dr. Conrad Nenn, chair of clinical services and clinic director in the School of Dentistry, volunteers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic in Milwaukee.
There, he and three fourth-year dental students provide emergency extractions to patients who cannot afford dental care or are on state insurance and would otherwise have nowhere else to go.
“A lot of dentists just do not accept Medicaid because of the reimbursement — approximately 37 cents on the dollar,” Nenn says. “It’s true that you have to make money to pay the bills, but there are still so many people out there in desperate need of dental care and the longer they go without, the bigger the problems become.”
Nenn began volunteering at the clinic — which serves those who fall 200 percent below the federal poverty guideline — in 2008. Since then, Nenn and his students have cared for many patients during approximately 8,500 appointments.
“It might sound strange,” Nenn says, “but the students and I enjoy doing the extractions.” The service is really symbiotic: Students get real world experience, and the patients, who often come into the clinic in pain, get the relief they need.
Often, Nenn says, those with no money or dental insurance put off going to the dentist until they are in such extreme pain, they simply cannot take it anymore — at which point they go to the emergency room. Unfortunately, Nenn says, ERs typically do not have a dental professional on staff, meaning patients with dental problems are usually just prescribed an antibiotic and a painkiller, and are told to see a dentist.
It’s a viscous, painful cycle people like Nenn and his students are trying to fix.
Marquette’s dental school allows faculty members to serve in private practice one day per week. Instead of using that time to provide service at a cost, Nenn prefers to use the first half of the day to give back. Not only does it feel good to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, Nenn says he is seeing the university’s mission being instilled in his students one patient — and one smile — at a time.
More important than the outward aesthetic of those smiles, though, are the health issues that accessible and prompt dental care can help prevent.
Poor oral health has been linked to things such heart disease and stroke. On the flip side, Nenn adds, dentists can sometimes be the first to detect a potential health condition.
“The obvious things we want to address are the ability to chew without pain and to get adequate nutrition, but there are some serious diseases that show up first in the mouth before they show up anywhere else,” he says. “Measles, for example, is something a dentist can many times see before the patient starts breaking out with the spots. There are even certain types of leukemia that show up orally before they show up in other ways.”
It’s nice to think, Nenn says, that the volunteer work, even during just one appointment, can have a lasting impact on a patient’s life and future.
Related content: More than 100 volunteer dentists, hygienists and faculty in the School of Dentistry offered free cleanings, exams and other dental care to hundreds of children Saturday, Sept. 28, as part of the annual “Give Kids a Smile Day.” The event focused on children 16 years and under from low-income families.
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