CDA Cares volunteer reflects on past, passion to help

Santos Cortez, DDS, was born in Tulare, Calif., a Central Valley town where his parents were farmworkers who came to the U.S. on a government program. Cortez and his parents lived on the farm where they picked fruit and vegetables. At age 10, after his family had moved to northeast Los Angeles, Cortez noticed pain in his mouth and learned he needed an extraction. A dentist extracted the tooth and his pain was relieved, and in the process Cortez discovered his passion: dentistry. He went on to attend the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC where he worked as a student leader of the USC Mobile Dental Clinic, which traveled to small towns throughout the Central Valley providing oral health care to underserved populations.  

Cortez, who is now a pediatric dentist in Long Beach, recently returned to the Central Valley as a volunteer for CDA Cares Fresno, where he provided treatment at no charge to children in need. It was there that Cortez, who is the lead in the pediatric section, couldn't help but wonder whether he would have sat in the dental chair if CDA Cares had been available when he was a child.

"That is the area of California where my parents worked as migrant farmworkers when I was born," said Cortez, who has participated in five CDA Cares events. The Central Valley is the "breadbasket of the country," Cortez noted, where most of our fruits and vegetables are harvested.

"The folks who work in the fields don't have access to care, so there is a great need," Cortez said. "Being able to give back to people in need is special, but the Central Valley is particularly special for me. To know that any one of the kids we treated could have been me many years ago was very poignant. It was bittersweet that I was there to offer treatment."

Hosted by the CDA Foundation and CDA, the CDA Cares volunteer dental program provides dental services at no charge to Californians of all ages who experience barriers to care. The event also educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for an adequately funded dental safety net, which includes a well-functioning Denti-Cal program. With the goal of improving overall health by relieving dental pain and infection, the main services provided at CDA Cares include fillings, extractions, cleanings and oral health education.

As the lead of the pediatric area during the two-day events, Cortez, along with CDA staff and volunteers, makes sure the clinic runs smoothly by setting up equipment, monitoring patient flow and providing direct care. Ten chairs are dedicated to pediatric care, which is located next to the hygiene area of the clinic to create a synergy. Many times, children are being treated while their parents are in the hygiene area for a prophy or receiving dental care in the chair next to them.

"We try to keep families together, especially families with multiple children," Cortez said.

Just outside of the pediatric section is a waiting area where children can watch movies or play with toys to keep them occupied. Inside, children ages 0 to 18 receive cleanings, sealants, fillings and more. A key component of the treatment provided is oral health education, something Cortez knows is lacking in underserved populations.

"We show families the value of a good smile and a healthy mouth, and show them how to brush and floss. We also talk about the importance of good nutrition, reducing sugar consumption and eliminating sweetened beverages in baby bottles," Cortez said. "If the parent places value in having a healthy smile, we need to make sure they understand how to achieve that goal by having clean teeth, healthy gums and sound teeth. Patient education is vital at CDA Cares."

Since CDA Cares began in 2012, volunteer dentists and dental professionals have provided $13.1 million in dental services to 16,080 patients statewide. A total of 12,918 volunteers have made that possible. Cortez, a regular at CDA Cares, encourages dentists to volunteer at the events because it is extremely rewarding.

"Go through the experience one time and I think you will come back. You don't have to worry about equipment, supplies or billing. It is pure dentistry and the opportunity to do what we do best," Cortez said. "You are providing something very significant, something only a few people can provide.  I can relate to that because when I was a child and a dentist relieved my pain, it made a big impact on my life."

The next CDA Cares will be held on April 16-17, 2016, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. For more information and to volunteer, visit cdafoundation.org/cdacares.

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