UTHealth event brings smiles, free dental care to Houston-area immigrants

Amanda Gerla

Jeylin Hernandez Carmona took the news surprisingly well for a 9-year-old.

A tiny piece of her baby tooth was stuck inside her gum, a dental student explained, pointing to the white fragment on an X-ray image. That’s what had been causing her pain.

“I think they’re going to take that out,” said the fourth-year student, Elizabeth Cutbirth. “Is that OK?”

“Yes!” Carmona said jovially before explaining the prognosis to her mother in Spanish. Originally from Honduras, the mother and daughter were among nearly 200 uninsured or underinsured Houston-area families who on Friday received free dental care at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry.

The school hosts the Give Kids a Smile program each year, providing thousands of dollars’ worth of dental cleanings and urgent treatment for children referred by the San Jose Clinic or the local Communities in Schools program. Many of the children, like Carmona, were immigrants who don’t have insurance and face at least a partial language barrier.

Even for those who have a Medicaid plan, lack of reliable transportation and frenetic work schedules complicate the process of seeking dental care.

“Some of the really small ones in underserved communities have really bad dental problems that need extraction,” said Dr. Antonio Cardenas, a UTHealth professor of pediatric dentistry. “Some of them need to go to the hospital and go to sleep for the whole treatment because they are sometimes two or three years of age.”

The Greater Houston region had the highest number of uninsured residents in the country in 2019, with nearly one in five people in the metropolitan area lacking health coverage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among children enrolled in Medicaid, few receive their required dental services, according to a 2016 study from the Department of Health and Human Services. The pandemic also led to fewer visits to dental offices, said Dr. Margo Melchor, associate professor in the Department of Periodontics and Dental Hygiene and at the UTHealth School of Dentistry.

“We don’t have teledentistry yet,” she said. “So you’ve got people who are not getting out if they had a toothache or something. They were probably just grinning and bearing it.”

A bill passed during the previous legislative session authorizing teledentistry in the state, but the logistics are still being worked out, Melchor said.

For many kids at the clinic on Friday, it was their first time receiving dental care. Fourth-year dental students and professional volunteers took care of their immediate needs and talked to the families about how to keep gums and teeth healthy. But the school also tries to connect families with a “dental home” where they can receive consistent, affordable long-term care.

The environment put some parents at ease in an unfamiliar country. Creusa Athu, who is from Bazil, brought her two boys to the clinic for the second year in a row.

“This helps us feel welcome,” she said.

[email protected]


Next Post

The Benefits of a Healthy Gut Microbiome for Weight Loss

Many aspects of human health, including digestion, metabolism, and immune function, are influenced by the gut microbiome. There is mounting evidence that the gut microbiome plays a role in weight loss and obesity prevention. Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy gut. Research shows that a healthy gut microbiome is […]