'I brush my teeth myself': Families line up in droves for free Mankato dental clinic

A close up of a gloved hand brushing fluoride in a child's mouth.
Brandon Billman, 6, has fluoride brushed onto his teeth by Minnesota State University, Mankato, senior Megan Dalueg at the Give Kids A Smile event on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Campus was fairly quiet Thursday afternoon, but inside Minnesota State University, Mankato’s public dental clinic, things were buzzing. 

Family after family drove up to the curb, called a phone number, and a student hygienist emerged from the clinic to lead them inside. It was the first day of a two-day free dental clinic for kids — and for some young patients, it marked the first time they’d had their teeth cleaned since last winter, and the start of the pandemic. 

The university’s public dental program hosts free dental clinics each semester, as a way for student hygienists to receive firsthand experience in working with young patients, and a way to give the community free access to dental care.

For some, having the easy access to a dentist was a godsend. Cole Read of Mapleton brought his three sons — Cameron, 11; Wyatt, 10; and Kasom, 4 — for cleanings and a check-up. 

“A lot of smaller towns may not have a dental practice,” Read said. He works in Mankato, and said the event was more convenient than any other option. He said regular checkups had been disrupted because of COVID-19. “So, to have one that’s kind of centralized where you can actually make it yourself, helps out. A lot of people need to get back into the routine, 

A person takes a temperature reading of a child standing in a parking lot
Caroline Hansen (left), a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato, takes a temperature reading from Taleen Al Shamsy, 4, before taking her in for a dental evaluation on Thursday. Tebarak Al Shamsy (right), Taleen's mom, brought Taleen in for a free dental screening at Give Kids A Smile, where extra precautions were taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases in children between  6 and 19. It can cause pain, infections and difficulty eating or sleeping — and, according to the state Health Department, has been known to affect children’s performance at school. A 2015 Health Department study showed that children in school districts with higher poverty rates were more likely to have had experienced tooth decay — a preventable disease, with regular care — in their young lives.

Faculty dentist Dr. Jessica Drapcho said that a free dental clinic program where community members can receive care regardless of economic situation helps address disparities in health care. Some might not be able to travel to get to a dentist who can take their type of insurance. 

“Not all dental practices might take a specific type of insurance or might only take a small percentage of patients that have that insurance,” Drapcho said. “So, a lot of people will call around and it’ll be difficult for them to get into an office locally. So there are just different barriers for mainly public program type insurances.”

COVID-19 has exacerbated those barriers. During the pandemic, many dental clinics were closed or only taking on emergency appointments. 

That was Tebarak Al Shamsy’s experience. Dental and other medical appointments for her 5-year-old daughter, Taleen, had been canceled several times since the beginning of the pandemic— and she was relieved to learn about the MSU Mankato clinic.

A child plays with a toy while in a dentist's chair.
Kasom Read, 4, from Mapleton, Minn., plays with a stuffed animal while waiting to have his teeth examined. Kasom and two of his brothers came in for free dental screenings and cleanings.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“[Taleen] actually had her physical exam canceled twice, because of COVID,” Al Shamsy, 24, said. “They're just not seeing her. Not the dental, not the physical appointments. They kept canceling on us twice. So I was really appreciative when I saw the post that MSU was holding this kind of event for students for free to get their, you know, teeth checked up and stuff. Because it has been hard getting into the clinics.”

Al Shamsy is a master’s student at MSU Mankato — so she’s busy, and was happy to find that the clinic fit in with her schedule. The timing also worked well with her daughter’s schooling. She said she hopes that more people hear about these sorts of resources that are available to them. 

“Especially low-income families, they don’t have the time to just take the time off from work or from school to take their kids to get checked out,” she said. “So, having free services kind of pushes families. They have no excuse not to go, because, OK, if you don’t have insurance, that’s OK. There’s students out here that are willing to help.”

In the back of the clinic Thursday, student hygienists were busy helping young patients get comfortable, demonstrating how to brush their teeth and learning the basics of oral hygiene. They took X-rays and sometimes asked patients to show them on a model of plastic teeth or stuffed animal how they brushed their teeth every day. 

A woman examines teeth of a child in a dentist chair.
Caroline Hansen, a senior at MSU Mankato, examines Taleen Al Shamsy's teeth on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Taleen loves the dentist — and cleaning her teeth. She said she often asks her mother what foods are healthy, and whether it’s OK to have some unhealthy treats every now and then. As she got ready to leave the dental clinic, she anticipated keeping up with her good brushing habits once Halloween comes. 

“I love candy,” she said. “I brush my teeth myself. I’m not going to eat all the candy. One a day.”

Hannah Yang is MPR News’ newest regional news reporter. She covers the communities south of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, from the South Dakota border all the way to Mankato and south to Iowa. She’s new to the region, and would love to hear your stories. Share news tips, ideas or just say hello at @HannahMYang on Twitter, or email her at hyang@mpr.org.

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