The pain was bad, on top of the fatigue and awful taste in her mouth. For five years, Joy Maxwell, 59, had lived with rotten teeth, some of them broken all the way down to the gums. She hadn’t seen a dentist in two decades.
“My face was sagging in, and I was getting older and more conscious of that and my wrinkles,” Joy says. “And also, my health.”
Without proper oral care, dental problems can lead to more serious conditions, such as heart disease.
In June, staff at Options for Southern Oregon—a nonprofit mental-health organization in Grants Pass, where Joy lives—told her about Medical Teams International and its free mobile dental clinic. Once a month, a fully equipped dental van rolls into the parking lot of the town’s Rivers of Life Foursquare Church.
Widely recognized for its refugee health care and disaster-relief efforts around the world, Tigard, Oregon-based Medical Teams International has the largest all-volunteer mobile dental program in the United States. Since 1990, it has responded to urgent issues of acute oral pain, decay and infection. The group’s dentists can relieve and heal these issues for many people through tooth extractions, fillings and gum-related cleanings.
Medical Teams International and World Vision—another humanitarian-aid giant based in the Northwest (related story on page 15)— are best known for their international outreach. Each is also busy closer to home, relying on a vast network of staff and volunteers to do their good work.
Medical Teams also swiftly rallied in response to COVID-19. Along with its mobile dental clinics, Medical Teams has converted some of the program’s vans into free mobile COVID-19 testing clinics. World Vision has provided free food to people economically distressed by the pandemic.
In recent months, Medical Teams has helped Northwest wildfire evacuees by providing hygiene kits.
Medical Teams’ mobile dental vans travel throughout Oregon and Washington every week, serving about 15,000 people a year. For several hours on a given day, one dentist and an assistant see up to 15 patients. Two patients at a time can receive care, as volunteers go back and forth between the van’s two walled-off dental suites.
“We started the program because it fills a major health-care gap, particularly in rural areas, where less than 49% of people living in poverty seek out oral health care,” says Cindy Breilh, executive director of the organization’s U.S. programs. “But the program doesn’t replace a dental home.”
The biggest barriers to dental care are availability and cost.
Joy, the Grants Pass patient, has no dental insurance and is on Social Security Disability Insurance.
Also eligible for the mobile dental program are families with incomes of less than 200% of the federal poverty level, and anyone without access to—or a realistic ability to pay for—dental care. Since the coronavirus hit, the program has aimed to carry some of the burden from overloaded hospital emergency departments.
Joy went to the mobile dental clinic as soon as she could. Volunteers wearing masks, gowns and gloves greeted her outside the van and screened her for dental work and the coronavirus. They assured her she would be protected against COVID-19 inside the van as well, given the limited-aerosol dental procedures and excellent ventilation.
After each patient, dental suites are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and stay empty for 30 minutes.
In three visits during the past three months, Joy had nine teeth pulled.
“Everyone was very kind, and the doctor was really gentle,” she says. “And they talked through everything before they did it.”
Joy was referred to a dental clinic in town for dentures, and says she now feels confident when she smiles.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people who can’t get dental care,” says Dr. Matt Johnston of Johnston Dental Care LLC in Grants Pass. “But if we can help just 10 to 12 people a month, they’ll be happier in life and more inclined to give, too.”
Matt has volunteered with Medical Teams for 10 years, having worked in Peru, Haiti and Romania.
“Serving others who are less fortunate can make the world a better place,” he says. “Medical Teams gives us the opportunity to do that.”
The organization also has revved up to meet the ever-increasing demand for COVID-19 testing in rural Washington. Four of its 12 mobile dental vans have been turned into mobile COVID-19 testing clinics for free, open-air testing four days a week.
Each clinic requires about nine staff: a driver, clinic manager, patient registrars, clinical assistants, and at least two RNs or other health professionals.
Since the end of March, Medical Teams’ 90 volunteers and staff have tested about 10,000 people, almost 8,000 of them in rural Washington.
Outside under an open shelter, assistants register patients while nurses or other health workers swab the front of the nose on both sides for 10 seconds each.
The same day, specimens are driven to the University of Washington Virology Lab.
Within 24 to 48 hours, Medical Teams staff call patients with results. Patients may also check results through an online portal using a personal, confidential code.
The testing program launched in March at Swedish Hospital Issaquah, and moved into the more urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. At the end of June, during a serious COVID-19 outbreak of more than 8,600 cases, the Yakama Nation in Yakima County was the first rural community to welcome the mobile COVID-19 testing clinics. The vans remain at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center.
When not already scheduled, one of the mobile COVID-19 testing clinics travels to areas of Yakima County that local health authorities and emergency-operations centers have identified as hotspots.
There, the van is set up in a church or community-center parking lot. It’s ready for staff to test anyone who believes they may have been exposed to COVID-19, whether or not they have symptoms.
Prosser in Benton County and East Pasco in Franklin County have used the mobile COVID-19 testing clinics, which eventually will reach Okanogan and Walla Walla in Washington, and rural Oregon.
“We have to stage our expansion very carefully, to make sure our staff and volunteers stay safe,” Cindy says. “We also need rural lab capacity, so we can get quicker test results. The longer people don’t know if they’ve got the coronavirus, the further it’s likely to spread.”
Cindy says under-resourced communities need more advocacy for all kinds of health care.
“I see the strain on the system, and it’s heartbreaking,” she says, noting she also is heartened. “I’m most pleased to see how our health teams, who are used to providing only dental care, have quickly pivoted with the mobile COVID-19 testing clinics.”
Whether for testing or for teeth, devoted volunteers and staff with Medical
Teams are “putting themselves out there, so they can respond with rural-community needs in mind—and really do what it takes,” Cindy says.
Partnership in Health
Medical Teams International
Who: A Christian international humanitarian-relief agency based in Tigard, Oregon.
When: Founded in 1979 as Northwest Medical Teams, its first work was done in Thailand with Cambodian refugees.
What: Life-saving medical care is offered for refugees and survivors of natural disasters and other crises, along with maternal and child health; urgent-care mobile dental clinics; and mobile COVID-19 testing clinics.
Where: 12 countries in South Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, East Africa and the United States.
Seeing the Need
World Vision International
Who: A Christian child-focused international-aid and advocacy agency based in Federal Way, Washington.
When: Founded in 1950 in Oregon, the organization initially responded to emergencies in East Asia.
What: Child protection and rights, disaster management, economic development, faith, education, health, nutrition, clean water, hygiene and COVID-19 crisis response.
Where: Nearly 100 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the United States
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private, nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest, including World Vision and Medical Teams International.