Community Impact Series -- Donated Dental Services

New Orleans, La. –
For many people a trip to the dentist is just part of the routine of personal health, and for them serious problems are rare. But then there are patients that Metairie dentist Dr. Ray Unland sees as a volunteer with the nonprofit called Donated Dental Services.

"These patients who come to us through Donated Dental Services, everything's wrong," says Dr. Unland. "Every tooth has something going on. Teeth are missing. Teeth are tipped over, they've got periodontal disease, it's like taking an average dental patient and multiplying it times 50."

The patients Dr. Unland sees through Donated Dental Services are impoverished, and they suffer from medical and mental health issues. They're needy, and without the means to afford proper care, their oral health has gone off the rails. They suffer from rotten teeth, missing teeth, rampant infections, constant pain, and many times the inability to properly chew. Combined with their other problems, they're in bad shape when they do make into Dr. Unland's dental chair.

"We want these patients to have a full set of teeth, whether it's their own teeth, whether it's false teeth that we make of some kind, it's going to be a full set of teeth. Something they can smile with, something that can chew with," he says.

Donated Dental Services is part of a national nonprofit called the Dental Lifeline Network, and it's set up expressly to help these most needy patients. Most are referred to the program by other social services agencies, and those who qualify receive complete rehabilitation of their dental needs for free.

In Louisiana, these services come from a network of about 350 volunteer dentists and specialists, who see patients in their offices and who together contribute about $700,000 in donated care each year. Still, this work only scratches the surface of the need they see.

"The sad part about it is, it's a crisis but there's only so many dentists involved with the project. So even if it's a crisis, the patient calls up and says, all right you qualify, you are going to be seen, but you're probably not going to be seen for two years," Dr. Unland says.

"The safety net in Louisiana is strictly emergency care. It's strictly to get rid of the infections, to get rid of the pain, and that's it. They still have nothing to smile with, they still have nothing to chew with. It's really pretty sad. So the people that do qualify, that do come into our program, it becomes a life-changing experience."

Dr. Unland doesn't use the term "life-changing" lightly.

"It gives them the self-esteem that many of them never had, probably since they were children. They can actually go for a job interview and smile for a job interview," he says. "They see themselves differently, and because of that a lot of them just blossom. And we see that all the time."

"I get beautiful letters from the patients, I get beautiful letters from families that say, you know, my mother never smiled in the last 10, 20 years and now she smiles all the time,' he says. "So it's really pretty gratifying to see some of these things. It just changes their world."

Learn more about the Dental Lifeline Network here.