Future dentists, hygienists hit the road with mobile dental clinic

More than 100 people packed into the Westminster Church in Pasadena, but they weren’t there for religious services.

The families, crowded into a makeshift waiting room, were there on a Saturday to receive free dental care for their children from a mobile dental clinic, hosted by the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

It spans two trailers and one motorhome, and it’s considered one of the largest clinics in the world. Walking inside a trailer, there’s an X-ray room off one. Top 40 music plays overhead. It even has big screen TVs. It’s like being transported to your 21st century dentist’s office, only a bit more cramped.

USC dentistry students, assisted by faculty, served more than 100 kids with up to 600 appointments from Feb. 24 to March 3. For roughly half of the kids, this was their first time in a dentist’s chair.

The clinic is for families who have low incomes or are underinsured or lack insurance entirely. Santosh Sundaresan, a USC dentist and director of the mobile clinic program, drilled home the importance of frequent dental care for children.

A student walks by the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC mobile clinic at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena. (USC Photo/David Sprague) More than eight patients at a time can be seen in the mobile dental clinic’s trailer. (USC Photo/David Sprague) Johny Wang practices tooth-brushing skills with the help of USC students Alexander Lee and Hunny Shah. (USC Photo/David Sprague) Jihee Won works with 7-year-old Quinn Daley, who said she looks forward to her annual visit at the clinic. (USC Photo/David Sprague) Quinn Daley, 7, talks to Jihee Won, left, and Lakshmi Alapati. (USC Photo/David Sprague) Grecia Hernandez, right, celebrates the end of her dental appointment with Kayla Lau. (USC Photo/David Sprague) For some children, the annual visit to the mobile clinic is the only access to dental care they can get. (USC Photo/Davis Sprague) Quinn Daley steps up to see the dentist. (USC Photo/David Sprague)

“If you give them the tools, you give them the education and you clean up their mouth, you help prevent infection and disease,” he said. “Maintain their oral health while they’re young, and not only does their physical health improve but so does their schooling and their school grades.”

Sundaresan cited a study USC performed about a decade ago that found dental pain was the No. 2 reason that Los Angeles Unified students missed school, averaging about 2.5 days.

Unexpected need

Many of the kids who attended the clinic were from Pasadena and surrounding areas like South Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre. The clinic is bringing a much-needed service to this part of the county, according to Mary Donnelly-Crocker, executive director of Young Healthy, an organization that provides families with medical, dental and mental health resources and was USC’s partner for the event.

People think of Pasadena as being a very wealthy community — and it is — but there are also large pockets of poverty that people on the outside, and some on the inside, don’t see.

Mary Donnelly-Crocker

“People think of Pasadena as being a very wealthy community — and it is — but there are also large pockets of poverty that people on the outside, and some on the inside, don’t see,” she said.

USC students worked long days, up to 16 hours, to make sure kids had their dental treatment completed. That meant multiple appointments for many of them.

As 6-year-old Grecia Hernandez’s cleaning finished up, dental hygiene student Kayla Lau made sure to take a selfie with her — complete with the “Fight On” gesture — before she left the chair.

“What’s a word you’d use to describe your beautiful new teeth?” Lau asked.

“I love them,” Hernandez said.