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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A reason to smile

Hygienist’s mobile dental office brings preventive care to students at school

Tooth Savers’ Gail Heacox, a registered dental hygienist, applies sealant to third-grade student Tyrese Patrick’s teeth on Monday in the nurse’s office at Sheridan Elementary School. (Colin Mulvany)
Tooth Savers’ Gail Heacox, a registered dental hygienist, applies sealant to third-grade student Tyrese Patrick’s teeth on Monday in the nurse’s office at Sheridan Elementary School. (Colin Mulvany)

Third-grader Tyrese Patrick opened wide and showed no fear as his teeth were inspected, scraped and a few were covered with a sealant by the dental hygienist visiting his school.

The 8-year-old had been put at ease by Gail Heacox, who explained the tools of her mobile dental office as Tyrese lay on her portable chair in the temporarily converted nurse’s office at Sheridan Elementary School.

Heacox is the first hygienist in Spokane County to offer the school-based dental sealant program, a preventive effort overseen by the Washington Department of Health. The veteran hygienist was brought into the schools through Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that seeks to connect students with community resources.

“If kids’ teeth hurt, they can’t learn,” said Ben Stuckart, director of Communities in Schools.

According to the Washington Department of Health, an estimated 51 million school hours are lost per year in the United States because of dental-related illnesses.

The need for dental care was discovered during conversations in the schools where “dental and medical kept coming up,” Stuckart said.

“One of the problems is that if a single parent works all day, they do not have time to get kids to an appointment,” Stuckart said. “Access at the school is key.”

A national report on dental policies and children released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Center applauds Washington for its school-based sealant program and federal or state reimbursements for dental services to youth. But the state was criticized for a lack of fluoridated water in some communities – Spokane being the largest one.

Heacox launched her for-profit business, called Tooth Savers, late last spring at Chase, Glover and Cheney middle schools. The business was expanded in January to include elementary and high schools.

Before the visit, each school is informed when the dental hygienist will be coming. Forms are sent home with students to get parents’ permission and insurance information. If a student doesn’t have insurance, the dental care is done free of charge.

Heacox assesses the students’ teeth, cleans them, then uses sealant to close cracks where a cavity could easily grow. Other services include oral hygiene instructions and painting the teeth with a highly concentrated fluoride that makes them stronger.

“Children who receive dental sealants in school-based programs have 60 percent fewer new decayed pits and fissures in back teeth for up to 2 to 5 years after a single application,” according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

An informational sheet is sent home to the parents indicating whether the child has cavities or other problems that need to be addressed by a dentist.

Tyrese was one of five Sheridan Elementary School students treated Monday. His two sisters were also seen. Two weeks ago, the hygienist was at Rogers High School where she helped about a dozen students.

“She does such a great service,” said Heacox’s assistant, Toni Carey. “Some of these students would never be seen by a dentist.”

When Heacox started dental work, she never planned to focus on children, she said. “It’s been the most fun, rewarding … and challenging job I’ve ever done.”

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