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A Clinic That Puts the Community First

February 18, 2016

Photos by Susan Merrell/UCSF
First-year dental student Tanya Varimezova, left, and Yuvika Raj Kumar, a third-year student in the international dental program, perform a dental procedure on Jeffrey Martinez.

By Terri Hunter-Davis

A toothache doesn’t care whether you have a job.

Soflex discs

Soflex discs are used for polishing composite fillings.

Being out of work often means being out of food, out of a home, out of options. But thanks to the UCSF School of Dentistry’s Community Dental Clinic, dental care is available to those who can least afford it.

The clinic, open Wednesday evenings at the Dental Center, is run by UCSF student dentists. Third- and fourth-year students, along with residents, provide the care; first- and second-year students are the coordinators, matching patients to providers and ensuring instruments and supplies are at the ready. Faculty are on hand to supervise. All is overseen by Caitlyn McGue, a third-year student who currently is the clinic director. Everyone works on a volunteer basis.

The clinic, launched in 1993, is able to treat most patients’ needs, from screenings, cleanings and check-ups to fillings, crowns, extractions and dentures. On average, 18-20 patients are treated in the clinic, free of charge. With generally 16 student dentists on duty, most — but not always all — patients are seen. Those who aren’t are given priority at the next week’s clinic, said McGue.

“One of the reasons I came to UCSF was this clinic,” said McGue, who did volunteer work during her undergraduate years in San Diego. “I love being here, and the people (who staff the clinic) want to be here.”

From toothbrushes to dentures

None more so than Jeff Eaton, DDS, associate clinical professor and the clinic’s faculty director. He’s been involved with the clinic for 20 of its 22 years — “when we had three students and all we could do was hand out toothbrushes and clean teeth.” Today, Eaton said, “it’s a full-service clinic.”

Eaton recalled the clinic’s early years, visiting places like Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, spreading the word about the clinic’s services. The clinic still works with Glide, along with Project Homeless Connect, Father Alfred’s Center, Asian American Resource Center and Clínica Martín-Baro, to reach out to prospective patients — folks who truly don’t have other options for quality dental care.

“There was this guy, a Vietnam vet, a tall guy,” who came in for dentures not long after the clinic began providing them, Eaton said. On the day he came in to receive them, a photo was taken. When he saw it, “he broke down and cried.

“It feels so good to change someone’s life,” Eaton said.

A more recent patient, Domingo Bail of San Francisco, also was pleased — even though he was in to have a tooth extracted.

“I am so happy, no complaints at all,” said Bail. “I’ve had cleaning, filling, now the extraction,” over the last three months. He’s been the regular patient of Irene Cheng, a third-year student who turned over the extraction procedure to Brian Hui, DDS, an oral surgery resident. She, like the other volunteers, is happy to be of service.

“The people really want to help,” said Cheng, who volunteered in her first and second years as well. “And the patients really appreciate it.”

Student dentists and patients at the Community Dental Clinic
All bays are usually full at the Wednesday night clinic.

A tradition of service

Volunteering is not limited to students and faculty. Yesenia Jimenez, a Dental Center employee, gives of her time and talents too. Jimenez, who will mark her first anniversary with the Dental Center in March, began helping out about seven months ago.

“At a banquet dinner, I was really introduced to CDC — and I fell in love with it,” said Jimenez, who comes from a family tradition of volunteerism. “I pass out supplies, translate in Spanish, assist the students” — things she generally doesn’t get to do on the job.

Even as Jimenez’s service is above and beyond her work responsibilities, she salutes the students who are doing likewise.

“I look at the students, they’re in the clinic for eight hours and then they volunteer their time here — I applaud them,” she said.

Eaton has applause for Jimenez as well.

“She has been volunteering week after week and after working long days in the clinic.  And her participation has also been invaluable in translating to many of our Spanish-speaking patients.  She brings her compassion, dedication and expertise to our clinics week after week, and always with a cheery smile.”

Local patients, global solutions

Yuvika Kumar

Yuvika Kumar, who is in the School of Dentistry's International Dentist Program, sees dental problems and solutions that apply to her home country of India.

For many patients, there’s a direct link between poverty and dental needs — and the conditions are found not just here, but halfway around the globe.

“I’m from India, and there we see a lot of this kind of work,” said Yuvika Kumar, who is in the school’s International Dentist Program and recently began volunteering at the Community Dental Clinic. In her home country, one is likely to treat patients who “don’t have a ‘perfect mouth.’ You get to think about other solutions.”

Those solutions would otherwise be out of reach for most patients. The clinic has provided the equivalent of $700,000 in care over the last decade, and has topped the $1 million mark since inception — made possible through donated equipment, access to clinic space and, of course, volunteers like Katharine Jones, DDS, a 1993 School of Dentistry alumna and clinical instructor who also has her own practice in Belmont. But she plays down her own contribution.

“The students should get all the credit.”

Related links:

Community Dental Clinic