CDA Cares volunteer changes young patient’s life

California dentists provide a tremendous amount of pro bono work to those who experience barriers to care. In fact, dentists across the state provide oral health care services worth an estimated $388 million each year ($15,668 per dentist). One such example occurred recently at the CDA Cares San Jose program.

Dental decay can be a problem for people of all ages, and no one knows that better than the family of Esmy, a 3-year-old girl whose severe early childhood caries had done so much damage to her teeth that she had begun to cover her mouth when smiling.

Every photo and every opportunity to smile big or talk caused the young girl to shield her mouth, said her grandmother, Ruby Smallwood.

But that was before she attended the CDA Foundation’s CDA Cares program in San Jose in May and had her life changed by a generous pediatric dentist who practices in Redlands.

Rick Nichols, DDS, volunteered in the children’s area at CDA Cares, a program that allows volunteer dentists, with the assistance of other dental professionals, to provide dental services at no charge to patients who experience barriers to care. Most patients wait in line over night to receive care and many suffer from severe pain and infection.

Ruby and her daughter-in-law Jessica brought Esmy to CDA Cares San Jose from Sacramento. Jessica, Esmy’s mother who also needed treatment, had traveled all the way from Texas at the request of Ruby. After an overnight sleep outside of the San Jose Convention Center, Esmy ended up in Nichols’ chair. It only took a short time for him to discover that the young girl needed serious work, work that would require IV sedation to complete — something that is beyond the scope of services that can be performed at CDA Cares. (CDA Cares provides fillings, cleanings, extractions and a limited number of dentures.)

Esmy was suffering from generalized moderate to severe dental decay.

“I told them that there are a couple of pediatric dentists in Stockton and Sacramento who I could refer them to, but her mom was genuinely desperate,” Nichols said. “Sometimes you meet people who are in serious need and you know you have to do the right thing.”

That’s when Nichols offered to take Esmy in as a patient in his own practice.

“At that point, my daughter-in-law was crying so hard, she was so grateful because other than that, there was no option,” Ruby recalled.

Three weeks after CDA Cares, the family took Nichols up on his offer and drove nearly 8 hours from Sacramento to his practice in Redlands. Considering the amount of treatment needed and the fact that IV sedation was necessary, Nichols also paid for Esmy and her mother to stay in a nearby hotel the night before and the night of the treatment.

“He was a huge blessing. He paid for the hotel for the night, he did all the work in the morning; it was amazing what he did,” Ruby said.

Nichols treated 14 of Esmy’s teeth during a sedation case that lasted two hours.

For Nichols, this was the first patient he had adopted from long distance, but adopting patients is nothing new for him. He has been involved with the local chapter of the Give Kids a Smile Program for years and has adopted patients through that program. He also served as the chair of the Tri-County Dental Society’s Give Kids a Smile program for five years.

Nichols says he has an ethical and moral obligation to the communities he serves.

“The reality is that there are a lot of people out there hurting and many of us do our share. I have a moral and ethical obligation to give back to my community; there are people out there who are so thankful for anything we can do to help them,” said Nichols, who hopes that more dentists who volunteer at CDA Cares offer to adopt patients and provide them a dental home.

Esmy and her family are certainly thankful, as she is no longer covering her smile.

“She smiles a lot more, as well as nonstop talking and laughing, with no concern about her teeth. So much that we sit through a whole hour meal just listening to her go on and on,” Ruby said. “Dr. Nichols was a godsend. He took it upon himself to do this, there are not enough thank-yous that I can give for what he has done for both of them [Esmy and her mother].”

One of the main goals of the CDA Cares program is to educate the patients and the public about the importance of good oral health. Nichols made sure to get that point across to the family as well, so much so that Esmy is now the one instructing her grandmother about how to take care of her teeth.

“Now she says things like, ‘No you have to brush them this way.’  That is pretty cool,” Ruby said. “I know Jessica is really promoting it too; this was life changing for both of them.”

CDA Cares was life-changing for Nichols, who plans to volunteer in San Diego in December.

“I hope to see everyone down in San Diego. You will find that after you volunteer for things like this, you usually get more out of it than what you have given,” Nichols said.

To date, with the help of 4,559 volunteers, CDA Cares has provided $4.4 million in care to 5,878 patients. CDA Cares will be in San Diego Dec. 7-8, Vallejo April 24-25, 2014, and Pomona Nov. 20-21, 2014.

For information about the CDA Cares program and to volunteer or donate, visit cdafoundation.org/cdacares.