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Danbury dental clinic sets up shop in schools
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A recent Department of Public Health report found that almost 50 percent of Latino children in Connecticut experience oral decay. There's a growing sense in the state that putting dental clinics in schools may be the best way to prevent students from missing school because of dental pain. WNPR's Kate Davidson recently visited a school based dental clinic in Danbury. It's one of about 30 around the state.

Jen Handau is a nurse practitioner who works in Danbury's Broadview Middle School. I asked her how common it is for students to tell her their mouths are in pain.

"It's very common," she said. "I mean common to the point where they would come in for another problem, whether it's my stomach hurts, I have a headache. And oh, by the way my teeth hurt. But my teeth have hurt for the past six months, so it was almost a non-event to them sometimes."

She says many of those students are from Danbury's growing immigrant population. And many are uninsured or underinsured.

"Because they couldn't get the care, they would wait and wait and wait until the tooth abscessed and they would have to go to the emergency room." Handau was speaking in the past tense because for the last couple months, there's been a new presence at Broadview.

It's the Danbury Public Schools Community Oral Health Initiative. Tucked away in a downstairs classroom, it's got the kind of buzzing dental equipment that put kids on edge.

"I was really nervous," says sixth grader Wendy Jaramillo, "Cause I like heard machines and I got really scared."

Wendy's parents are originally from Ecuador. At some point in her twelve years she got the firm idea that kids scream at the dentist's office. Three cavities and two fillings later, here's her report:

"No one here was actually screaming and she helped me through it."

She is dental assistant Maritza Virceanu, who Wendy affectionately calls "the Colombian."

"Usually, I try to tell them to hold my hand and squeeze my hand," says Virceanu.  "They are so scared. And I tell them, is no reason to be scared. We are here to help them."

Here's how that help works. Two dental clinics rotate through the school district, doing exams, cleanings and other preventative work. One school houses a permanent clinic that sees kids from all over. The dentists fill cavities and do simple extractions. Virceanu says many of the children she sees have never been to the dentist before and they learn their fear from their parents. Dentist Lucretia Cefola, says that some of those parents grew up in countries without fluoridated water or access to care, and their expectations may be different.

"There are a lot of people out there that believe as you get older it's normal for your teeth to be pulled and removed," she says.  "But that isn't the case. We can fix them, we can keep the original teeth in people's mouths. And it's better than having a set of dentures."

Health workers here say that putting dental clinics in schools removes the barriers to care that many low income and immigrant families face. Parents don't need to take time off from work, or arrange transportation. If children don't show up for appointments, they are simply plucked from class. And the basic services are free, or billed to HUSKY -- the state program for low income kids. That's important in a city like Danbury, where in some areas the ratio of low income people to dentists who will treat them is almost 10,000 to one.

It's hard to gauge the success of a limited program like the one in Danbury. But at least one fidgety twelve year old took home what she learned and translated it into Spanish.  Wendy Jaramillo told her mother all about the protective coating now painted on her molars. And Wendy says her mom was suffering from dental pain, but was scared to see a dentist.

"So I actually convinced her," she says, "Cause I told her how good the dentist was. Cause she hasn't been to the dentist in like ten years."

And did her mom actually go to the dentist after that?

"Um-hum. And now she feels much better cause she got all her teeth fixed."

As the dental clinic wrapped up its stay at Broadview Middle School, a new patient settled in. Another twelve year old girl, this time with seven cavities. Dr. Cefola said it was her first time at the dentist.