Thousands of kids in Kentucky have something big to smile about, thanks to one modern day hero by the name of Dr. Edwin Smith. The Barbourville, Kentucky dentist was recently named a “CNN Hero” last month, after the amazing lengths he’s gone to to give kids the dental care they need — for free.
For years, Smith had been seeing the growing need for children and teens to access free dental care across many of the state’s rural areas; but he also recognized that many of them lacked the resources to actually get to a dental clinic. So instead of letting that be a barrier to reaching kids in need, Smith took matters into his own hands and created his very own mobile dental clinic.
According to the New York Times, Smith used $150,000 of his own money to flip an 18-wheel truck into a dental clinic on wheels. And in 2005, Kids First Dental Services was born. The unique school-based dental program, designed to improve access to dental care particularly among low-income children, has been a growing success ever since.
“The level of need is hard to believe until you see it up close,” Smith told the New York Times back in 2007. And while he’s seen lots of adults with grave health conditions over the years, the most heartbreaking stories come from Smith’s youngest patients.
“I would see a lot of kids who had a mouth full of rotting teeth,” Smith recently told CNN. “They were in pain, and they’d be hurting at school.”
Smith’s non-profit program provides free checkups for kids from preschool to 12th grade, who might otherwise go without care. They give kids exams, clean their teeth, do X-rays when needed, apply fluoride, and do sealants on any permanent molars that don’t have decay in them.
And make no mistake, tooth decay is a pretty serious problem: It’s considered the number one chronic health problem in children and one of the most reported reasons families give for their child missing school. That’s why so many community programs are working tirelessly to provide dental care children for free if their families can’t afford it.
Because of the sheer number of kids who are in desperate need of these services, Smith and his team travel the windy roads of Appalachia to park a mobile dental until outside of schools and deliver care until each student with a signed consent form has been seen; regardless of pay.
After treating more than 43,000 kids, Smith has seen it all. But I think one of the most heartbreaking stories he shared involved a 14-year old girl who rarely lifted her head because she felt so much shame about all the teeth she lost from malnutrition — something she had absolutely no control over.
Like many others, I grew up going to the dentist every year; it was a regular part of my childhood. The promise of a visit to the “treasure chest” for a prize at the end of my appointment was all that was needed to get me in the exam chair tear-free. And as far as my own children, well, they visit the dentist twice a year like clock work. If they ever have a tooth ache or an uncomfortable pain in their mouth, we make a call and it’s taken care of in a few days, because — thankfully — we have good dental insurance.
But the same cannot be said for a large number of Americans.
It wasn’t until I became a school counselor and started working with kids from all different socioeconomic levels that I suddenly realized just how many kids have a much different experience. The reality is, many of them will rarely if ever see a dentist during their childhood; and worse, they’ll possibly develop a fear or aversion to going in the process.
But hopefully, that’s all changing. Mobile clinics like Smith’s are now popping up all over the country, and kids are finally starting to receive some basic dental care in areas where it’s needed most.
In my own hometown, Smile Partners visits local preschools and elementary schools once a year to deliver free routine dental care, and in California, students ages 5 to 18 in the Los Angeles Unified School District are eligible to receive no-cost services from QueensCare mobile dental care. Further East, Cornerstone Care, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, shuttles its mobile dental van all over the area to offer routine dental care to children.
When asked by CNN what the work he does means to him, Smith gave this very humble reply:
“I felt like I had a calling to do this. It was just something that was laid out in front of me that needed to be done. People who, before, wouldn’t even let you see their teeth, and now they’ve got these big, wide smiles. That’s one of the most rewarding things.”
And big, wide smiles so many of them now have. Thank you, Dr. Smith, for changing the lives of our kids and showing us all what a true hero is.