By Jody Smith
For the chronically ill, poor health and unhealthy finances often go hand in hand. Many of the things other people consider necessities must fall by the wayside. Dental care is often one of the "extras" to go, in a household where illness has flattened earning ability. This begins a repeating loop of deterioration to teeth and gums, leading to further deterioration of health that was frail to begin with.
Many might not be aware of how the combination of poor health, poor finances and poor teeth can drive an individual or household into a downward spiral. But Dr. Mark Olivito of Kingsville has been all too aware of this pattern and it has weighed heavily on him for some time.
In Essex County there are free dental services for children up to the age of 18. But for people over 18, help is only available to those on some forms of government assistance. Those who are poor, and possibly ill as well, often have no choice but to let their teeth rot. And then they deal with the health problems that are the result.
"I wanted to offer this free work to low income families as a way to give back to this wonderful community of Kingsville. As an educated professional I have the ability to offer a unique skill to a group of people who through circumstance have fallen behind in their oral health care," Dr. Olivito said.
"I believe that routine dentistry is an affordable service that can be budgeted for just as trips to the hair salon and other services. A problem can arise however when people fall behind on routine care and the health of their mouth deteriorates. Playing catch up can get costly. This was our way of allowing people to catch up their oral health and bring them back to a healthy baseline, allowing them the opportunity to resume routine preventitive care."
But he was at a loss as to how to make a difference.
"This opportunity came about through a desire I had to provide some outreach to the community of Kingsville, who has supported our practice well over the years. The concern that I had was where were we going to start? Where would these patients come from?" Dr. Olivito said.
The situation began to change a couple of years ago. Conversations with friends gave shape to a plan, and with their help he took action.
"The patients were found with the assistance of the Goodfellows, who distribute Christmas hampers to needy families. It was a good opportunity for us to target a population who had already been screened by the Goodfellows for aid. We included a notice in each hamper with our offer."
When Dr. Olivito approached his staff with the "opportunity" to work a series of Saturdays for free, he was delighted by their willing response. But he wasn't at all surprised.
"My staff was excited about the idea of community outreach. Many of us are actively involved in charitable causes outside of work and we had had previous discussions about what we could do to give back to our community as a team. This was a logical choice. A way that we could use our skills to benefit others who are in need of our services."
Prospective patients who'd gotten the Goodfellows' dental care notice called the phone number listed. Within a few weeks they received a return call from Dr. Olivito's office.
Appointments were scheduled for Saturday mornings. All dental staff donated their time and efforts. Examinations and x-rays were performed, and each patient was evaluated.
In one instance, a man needed cleaning, a tooth smoothed and another tooth rebuilt. His wife needed a cleaning, and an old filling replaced. Their son needed half a dozen cavities filled along with a cleaning. Each of them had health issues that were impacted by inadequate dental care, due to an unhealthy income. Infection can spread from the teeth through the body, and overburden the immune system so that it can't protect the body from attacks on its health.
The chronically ill often fight the feeling that nobody cares about their plight. Their ability to help themselves is limited, and often they can only hope that someone will fight for them. This hope is often met with disillusionment and loss. Many suffer in silence, not because they choose to be silent but because no one is listening.
People like Dr. Olivito and his staff are an encouragement to the chronically ill. They are rescuers and champions who probably would be embarrassed to hear themselves spoken of this way. But that is what they are. Rescuers and champions to a group of people in Kingsville who had no hope for dental care, resigned to having teeth fall out, and infection spreading throughout their bodies. Their ability to hope and believe in others has been strengthened by the selfless efforts of those at Dr. Mark Olivito and Associates.