A grade-schooler who was given a toothbrush at a school health fair asked for another one when she visited the dental clinic—not because she lost hers or wanted a different color, but because her father took hers.
Having heard that story many times, Susan Albee ’95 is painfully aware of the problem revealed by the scenario: Dental care is one of the largest unmet health needs in the United States, especially in children.
Tooth decay is the leading cause of chronic illness in children and often leads to missed school days or trouble concentrating. More than half of children ages 5 to 9 already have cavities, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Albee is working to rectify the problem as an advocate for dental health in Central Illinois. A Mennonite College of Nursing graduate, she supervises the McLean County Health Department’s dental clinic. The facility opened in 1998 with donations, including dental chairs from an abandoned Air Force base.
“We’re the dental home for people on public aid, and we’re seeing less than half of them,” she said. The clinic is the sole option for dental care for nearly 23,000 low-income residents, including 13,000 children. Their need is great, as more than 40 percent of McLean County third-graders alone have experienced the pain of a cavity.
Sue Albee’s motivation in keeping a dental clinic for low-income families operating is simple: protect the precious smiles of youngsters.
Although there are nearly 100 dentists in Albee’s Bloomington-Normal community, not one routinely accepts Medicaid because of the low reimbursement. Dentists tell Albee that they can’t even sterilize their instruments for what they receive in payment.
Struggling families consequently turn to the clinic, which provides children with preventative care that includes cleanings, fluoride treatments and dental sealants, extractions, and fillings.
The problems created when dental health is ignored can become so severe that the clinic is not always able to provide treatment. An 8-year-old boy with cavities in 14 of his 20 teeth had to be referred to a Chicago hospital, where a drill was relentlessly poked through the cavities while he was sedated in an operating room.
“We couldn’t ask for the child to keep coming back for one or two fillings at a time because he would never have wanted to go to a dentist again,” said Albee, who is convinced parent education is the primary cure to this health issue.
Albee has seen infants with a mouth full of cavities that develop because parents may shrug off the importance of caring for baby teeth. They do not realize those tiny teeth can crumble with decay.
“We see parents coming into the clinic with bottles and sippy cups filled with Mountain Dew,” she said. “For some children, their breakfast was a bag of Doritos.”
She consequently emphasizes education, from making sure newborn hospital packets have fingertip toothbrushes to sending Mennonite College of Nursing students into grade schools, where they may teach fifth-graders how to floss for the first time.
Albee calls the work her true passion, even though she didn’t start out wanting to be a public health nurse. At 18 she was accepted into Mennonite, but made a last-minute decision to become an X-ray technician. After watching her mother die of lung cancer at 50, she felt the nursing call again and enrolled at Mennonite to do hospice work.
“I always felt like nursing school was something I should have done,” she said. “Looking back, Mennonite came into my life at a time when I needed something and someone.”
By the time she went back to school in her 30s, Albee had three school-aged children, was in a troubled relationship, and had no idea how she was going to pay tuition. Bromenn Regional Medical Center offered her a full scholarship in exchange for a two-year commitment.
She accepted it and spent the next seven years earning her degree, while keeping her promise to her two basketball-playing boys that she’d never miss a game. She was rarely seen without her backpack and pulled out her books at half-time.
The family was living with her father and her checking account was depleted when she graduated. Without her knowledge, a friend talked to a Mennonite administrator about Albee’s situation.
“Without me even walking into the office, they brought me a check for $1,500, a loan to get me by,” she said. “I could still cry thinking about it.’”
Not only did she repay the money, but Albee gave back in other ways. She served as president of the Mennonite Nurses Alumni Association in 1999 when the college was considering partnering with a university. “There were several colleges that wanted Mennonite, and we were looking for the best fit,” she said. “It was a pretty awesome decision to go with ISU.”
Today she provides clinical supervision for Illinois State nursing students in their community health rotation. “I’m not able to give back financially as much as I would like, but I’ve been able to give back in service to the college,” she said. “And I love having students here. They are the future of public health. As long as I have breath in me, we will always be a clinical site for student nurses.”
Wendy Myers of Carlock is just one of many MCN students who volunteers in Central Illinois schools. She worked a health fair event during the spring semester at Oakdale Elementary School in Normal.
Albee’s also found ways to give back to the community. She helped secure $150,000 in grants to expand the dental clinic, allowing the facility to serve an additional 400 children last year. But more needs to be done.
The clinic lacks the money for preventative care for adults, who are only treated for pain control. Albee intends to change that. She is also advocating for a freestanding dental clinic that she hopes is functional within five years.
“Everywhere I go I talk about it, figuring if you plant the right seeds, somebody may just step up and say, ‘Let’s start a dental clinic,’” Albee said, sharing her vision to bring community partners together to fill the growing need for affordable dental care.
PAIN CAN BE PREVENTED
While not all dental problems are avoidable, there are several simple steps that can keep teeth healthy. The following advice is provided by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the McLean County Department of Health Dental Clinic.
- Prevention begins with newborns, who should have their gums cleaned with a soft cloth and water.
- Brush twice a day with a soft infant toothbrush as soon as teeth appear. Use toothpaste designed for babies, and replace the brush at least every three months.
- Don’t taste-test your baby’s food. Infants aren’t born with bacteria that causes tooth decay. They acquire it from someone who has had a cavity.
- Avoid putting your baby to bed with a bottle or sippy cup, even one filled with milk or formula. If your child must have a bottle, fill it with plain drinking water.
- Teach your child to drink from a cup by 6 months and be weaned by 1 year.
- Make that first visit to the dentist before age 2. Schedule six-month checkups.
- Include foods that require a good amount of chewing in the diet, as this generates cleansing saliva.
- Encourage kids to snack on cheese, which stimulates the body’s salivary glands to clean the mouth.
- Teach school-age kids that if they can’t brush after a meal, rinse with water.
- Avoid bottled water, as it doesn’t contain fluoride. Kids should drink at least a pint a day to protect from tooth decay.
- Ask your dentist about the use of supplemental fluoride and dental sealants that protect molars.
- Teach kids how to floss.
- Drink nothing but water after brushing at night.