Down in the mouth

Dental van pays visit to Falls City


Jessica Littleton gets her mouth numbed by Dr. Jeffrey Currier, DMD, during a recent visit by the NW Dental Van to Falls City.

FALLS CITY -- It's 7:30 a.m.

Thirty minutes ago, Denny Sanders of NW Medical Teams parked his converted motor home in a vacant gravel lot next to the Falls City Fire Department.

Now he waits. He is waiting for patients. Waiting for people to seek him out amongst the cool October mist.

It being fall, the sun started to sneak over the horizon just an hour ago. The light that fills the air is still faintly blue with night. Forecasters promise high temperatures by noon, but for now Sanders cranks up the heat. A few digital beeps and the warming air floods through an overhead vent.

Inside, the dental van is beginning to feel cozy. Outside, everything is damp. The air is tinged with evergreen needles and animal smells. The mix of new buildings and old cars hints at a town on the precipice of change.

Struggling to hold on through economic hardships and changing values.

Dr. Jeffery Currier, DMD, rubs his hands together as the electric heat seeps through his fingers. He retired in May of 1998 after 20 years of dentistry in Dallas.

By all rights, he should be at home sipping coffee at his kitchen table in Sheridan. Quietly appreciating nature's autumn fashion parade.

Instead, he woke up before dawn and drove almost an hour to meet the NW Dental Van. He does this at least once a month, volunteers and donates his time. Uses his knowledge and skills to provide people, who have no other means, proper emergency dental care. He and people like him keep the eight NW Dental units in operation.

Rooster calls and crepitating footsteps break through the chilled morning. The third member of the dental team has arrived. Peggy Hoffner, Currier's daughter, opens the thin door and clamors up the steep, flimsy steps.

She's middle aged, with short blond hair and warm demeanor. She greets everyone with a huge smile and an enthusiastic "Good morning!"

Like Currier, Peggy no longer works in the dental field, but still volunteers for NW Medical's Dental Van.

As she exchanges her coat for a smock, Sanders explains their roster. It's packed back to back with patients, which is not unusual.

"There is a lot of networking that goes on. People hear from other people, who heard from someone else that we are going to be in town," Sanders said.

Networking and community action brought Sanders and his van to Falls City this morning. Mainly the action and networking of one woman -- Ann Olsson.

Olsson saw a real need for dental care in her town, and she contacted NW Medical Teams. She wanted to bring the van to her community. When she was killed Oct. 1 in a car accident on Bridgeport Road, the project lost its leader.

Now, amid mourning for a friend, added concerns have arisen for Falls City residents. Future dental van visits are in jeopardy. It costs $600 to have the van set up shop for the day. Olsson's dental van fund has only raised a fraction of the necessary money.

More crackling gravel. Annette Siegfried, Olsson's friend and fund-raising partner, climbs into the motor home. She has with her a list of names. She looks harried and overwhelmed. Ann was the organizer, the leader, all the paperwork is now in chaos she explains.

Siegfried produces a list from her pile of forms. The first patient. Jessica Littleton is on her way. She has been complaining of tooth pain, and is nervous about possibly having her teeth pulled.

"We'll try not to scare her off," Currier says, then chuckles.

Littleton arrives a few minutes later. She's young, 17 years old, and has long blond hair knotted behind her head.

Currier quickly realizes what is wrong. She has an infected tooth that has festered. He holds Littleton's x-ray up to the light and points at a dark area below the roots of her teeth.

"See that? This tooth here has had a filling put in it as a stop gap measure, the infection has started to seep past it and into the surrounding tissue."

Littleton's tooth will have to be removed. An infection like hers, if left untreated, could easily seep into the bone and make her extremely ill.

Currier begins the procedure by injecting some kind of analgesic into Littleton's mouth. He takes a long, dripping needle encased in stainless steel and sticks it into various parts of Littleton's mouth. She remains remarkably composed considering her earlier aprehension.

During his shift, Currier treats 12 patients. That is $3,810 worth of free dental care. On any given day volunteer dentists will treat between eight to 12 people.

The original concept for the mobile unit was to provide urgent medical and dental needs to migrant workers and the poor. However, organizers soon discovered that people were desperate for dental care, not medical care.

"Anybody can go into a hospital's ER and receive urgent medical care, but there is no place people can go to get dental care. Anything they do in the ER to treat dental problems is little more than a band aid," Sanders said.

Four times a year, Sanders takes the van to area schools to treat kids and once a month he's at the Union Gospel Mission treating Salem's homeless population. He also frequents area wineries and farms to treat workers.

Sanders often sees the same people. People who live at or below the federal poverty line. People who have no place to turn when the pain becomes too much to live with. People who are at the end of their options.

"A lot of the time we are the last resort for patients. They've gone everywhere else and have been turned away... The bottom line, if people are in pain they're going to pull out all the stops to get the help they need," Sanders said.


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