Calif. school features full-service dental clinic for kids

2011 05 23 16 01 01 449 Boy Dental Exam 70

RICHMOND, CA - If only all of our experiences in the dental chair could have started with the avuncular and kindly Daniel Tanita, DDS, a dental version of TV's Mr. Rogers.

He lifts his first patient of the day, 6-year-old Guadalupe, with a comic groan and nestles her into the blue dentist's chair, the first time she's ever been in one.

"We're just going to look at your teeth," he tells the youngster. "This will be very easy, you'll see. You get to ride up in the big chair, and we even have cartoons you can watch on the TV. Isn't that fun? That's a big girl. You're such a good helper!"

Daniel Tanita, DDS, and 6-year-old Guadalupe of Richmond, CA, during her first visit to the full-service clinic at Peres Elementary School.Daniel Tanita, DDS, and 6-year-old Guadalupe of Richmond, CA, during her first visit to the full-service clinic at Peres Elementary School.
Daniel Tanita, DDS, and 6-year-old Guadalupe of Richmond, CA, during her first visit to the full-service clinic at Peres Elementary School.

The first-grader is among the 500 students who can get free care at Peres Elementary School in the low-income Iron Triangle area of Richmond, a San Francisco Bay Area community traditionally plagued by crime and violence.

When Dr. Tanita started volunteering at the school in 1997, he did dental checkups in a converted janitor's closet.

"It was a humble beginning, but it was a start," he recalled. "We had one little chair and no windows."

Today the school houses a full-service clinic that opened in September 2012, thanks to a $500,000 investment from a school bond measure. Unlike most school-based clinics, the volunteer dentists do extractions, restorations, and root canals.

At the start of the school year, permission forms are sent out to parents to authorize the dental care. Most are eager to have their children treated at the clinic, Dr. Tanita noted.

“It's one experience at a time, and you keep building on that.”
— Daniel Tanita, DDS

"A lot of the time before the kids come in, the parents will go to the principal and ask if their kid can be taken care of if they're having problems, so we try to get them in right away," he said.

Most of the area has underserved populations, especially children, and before the clinic opened, most were going without treatment or going strictly on an emergency basis, Dr. Tanita added.

"That's not the way you want kids to have their first dental experience," he explained. "You want them to start out early and have good preventive care, and have it be a good experience. So when this opportunity came up at Peres, I thought it would be a good chance to give back and help out some of the kids that needed dental care."

Good dental memories

Like most of the children, Guadalupe was initially fearful. Fortunately she had no caries, so Dr. Tanita cleaned her teeth while explaining the process and soothing the little girl. "It just kinda tickles, and even tastes like bubble gum," he said. "Now your teeth are nice and pretty and so shiny!"

Guadalupe getting her teeth cleaned for the first time by Dr. Tanita.Guadalupe getting her teeth cleaned for the first time by Dr. Tanita.
Guadalupe getting her teeth cleaned for the first time by Dr. Tanita.

The next patient, 5-year-old Alvin, already had extensive dental work, including two stainless steel crowns on his front teeth. After getting a prophy and fluoride treatment, the boy declared, "It was fine, and it didn't hurt."

Another child with good dental memories.

"When they first come in, they're a little bit nervous because they think it's going to hurt, but once they see that we just kind of check their teeth and polish them and nothing really hurts, it ends up being a good experience for them," said Dr. Tanita, who has a private practice in nearby San Pablo. "It's one experience at a time, and you keep building on that."

Being treated in a familiar setting also puts the children at ease, he added.

"Because they're in school with their friends and teachers, and it's a safe environment, they feel this is just part of school," Dr. Tanita pointed out. "So it's kind of a grass roots thing we're doing here. I think that's why the school-based model works well, because it's easy access to have the kids be seen."

A 'dental home'

After having such good experiences, the children now seek out the clinic.

"A lot of them over the years come by during recess and say, "When can I come in?' " Dr. Tanita proudly noted. "It's very cute because they start to take a little ownership of having their own clinic here, so it gets to be a fun place for kids to hang out."

Michael Stokes, DDS, who has a practice in Pinole, has volunteered alongside Dr. Tanita for years after being recruited by his friend.

"With some dentists, getting them to volunteer their services is like pulling teeth," Dr. Stokes said, laughing.

He recalled some early experiences at the clinic: "Some of the kids had never seen a dentist before, and had a mouthful of cavities and were in a lot of pain," he told DrBicuspid.com. "How can you learn and study if you're in pain?"

Dr. Stokes concurs with Dr. Tanita's philosophy of creating good impressions for kids.

"We're just trying to change hearts and minds," he said. "If their first experience is bad, it will affect them the rest of their lives -- they'll stay away from the dentist, and it compounds their oral health problems. It just kind of snowballs."

In addition to providing much-needed care to the children, Dr. Tanita is also inspiring them to follow in his footsteps.

"It's a great introduction for kids to see what the dental profession is like," he said. "One of the kids said that after coming here and seeing what a dentist and hygienist do, he thought, 'I think I want to be a dentist when I grow up!' "

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