Toward a Healthier Virginia for All
This article is part of an ongoing series of stories highlighting VCU Health programs and initiatives aimed at addressing issues of access and equity in health care.
They came, they cleaned and they’ll be back.
After being shuttered for two years due to COVID-19, a small army of VCU School of Dentistry students, residents, faculty and staff once again descended upon Southwest Virginia for two days in July to tackle the critical oral health needs of the region’s most vulnerable residents.
In all, 322 patients of all ages received cleanings and fillings, extractions and even root canals from those working with Missions of Mercy, or MOM, as it’s widely known, a collaboration between the VCU School of Dentistry and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation, as well as hundreds of volunteers from around the state.
MOM provides free dental services to underserved communities across Virginia where health disparities exist, a problem further exacerbated in those areas by shortages of dental professionals.
I can only imagine the difference between [patients] walking in with broken teeth and afraid of the dentist, and then having a great experience in here and walking out feeling like they can smile again.
Firas Sabti, VCU School of Dentistry student
Since it’s start in 2000, MOM events have helped more than 70,000 people with free dental services worth more than $47 million. This year’s event provided services worth more than $400,000.
MOM is the brainchild of Terry Dickinson, D.D.S., School of Dentistry adjunct professor and former executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. The VCU School of Dentistry became instrumental from the start thanks to the efforts of Carol N. Brooks, D.D.S., then director for the school’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry Program, who recruited residents to participate. The program began to expand across the state within a year, thanks largely to VCU dental and hygiene student participation, a critical element that proved crucial to MOM’s success.
As a result, MOM is now a VCU-sponsored program, overseen by the Department of Oral Health Promotion and Community Outreach.
The Wise event, held this year at the UVA Wise David J. Prior Convocation Center, is the largest for MOM in Virginia, serving roughly five counties around that area. More than 300 volunteers not only provided dental services, but worked to transport then set up, maintain and tear down portable dental chairs, dental units, digital X-ray machines and sterilization facilities. When necessary to accommodate large crowds, MOM organizers work wherever they can find a venue large enough – airport hangers, high schools, vacant factories, fairgrounds and more.
“I can only imagine the difference between [patients] walking in with broken teeth and afraid of the dentist, and then having a great experience in here and walking out feeling like they can smile again,” said Firas Sabti, a student in the D.D.S program.
Fellow VCU D.D.S. student Madelyn Lawrence echoed those thoughts, adding that she volunteered several years ago during a MOM
event while an undergrad student at UVA-Wise and from that experience, made the decision to come to VCU School of Dentistry.
“I know that they give back so much to the communities around them and the underserved,” she said.
Since its start, MOM has been replicated in more than 30 states throughout the country, though Dr. Dickinson said he’s not aware of any other program that offers the scope of care that Virginia’s MOM does, thanks to the relationship between VCU School of Dentistry and its campus partners at the VCU School of Pharmacy and the VCU School of Nursing.
“The people in this area and the people from all over this state come together to provide care to people that simply don’t have access to good dental care,” Dr. Dickinson said. “I don’t think any other program like ours in the U.S. has the medical component that we do.”
Sandra Harrison, a patient, said back in July that she showed up at the MOM event for a root canal – but left with so much more.
“I ended up leaving with this smile,” she said, grinning. “I couldn’t be happier.”
If you would like to make a gift to support VCU School of Dentistry outreach projects like MOM, please contact Christina M. Cruz, director of leadership annual giving and stewardship for the School of Dentistry, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 804-828-2931, or Gloria Greiner-Callihan, associate dean of development and alumni relations for the School of Dentistry, by emailing gfcallihan@vcu or calling 804-828-8101.