Imagine growing up without teeth. That’s what 9-year-old Kaitlyn Pinto faced. Kaitlyn suffers from ectodermal dysplasia, in which teeth, and sometimes hair and fingernails, develop improperly. None of her front teeth ever developed, and her back teeth were tiny.
Miles of Smiles
A Dental Crisis Solved
“Why do my friends have teeth, but I don’t?” Kaitlyn would ask her parents. The question that Sue and Trevor Pinto asked each other was, “How do we fix this?”
A dental hygienist referred them to the prosthodontics clinic on the Rutgers Health Sciences at Newark site, one of five treatment centers (two in Newark and three in southern New Jersey) that handle more than 100,000 patient visits annually and are operated by the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine. Over the course of three visits, Haitham Aga, a third-year prosthodontics resident, took a mold of Kaitlyn’s mouth and created a set of pediatric dentures to fit over her existing teeth. She will continue to be fitted with dentures until she stops growing and is ready for permanent dental implants.
Many Specialties in One Place
Anyone can find treatment at the clinics (fees are lower than those at private practices and the clinics accept Medicaid and certain private insurances). The school is the largest provider of Medicaid dental care for the state’s underserved populations: low-income patients and those with special physical or mental needs.
Like Kaitlyn, many patients are referred to the school because it offers the kind of sophisticated care—in specialties like orofacial pain, oral and maxillofacial surgery, and prosthodontics—that is difficult to find. Having multiple specialties under one roof is a big plus. “Many cases are multidisciplinary, requiring more than one specialty,” says Louis DiPede, acting director of the postgraduate prosthodontics program.
If students are trained to treat patients who are underserved, they’re going to be far more likely to do that in their private practice.
The clinics are staffed largely by dental students and residents, who are supervised by faculty. “Patients get high-quality care at a reduced fee, and students learn the art and science of dentistry,” says senior associate dean Michael Conte. The southern New Jersey clinics are known as the Statewide Network for Community Oral Health. Fourth-year students enrolled in the Community-Oriented Dental Education (CODE) program treat patients at these sites, where before graduating they treat a diverse population in a setting similar to a private practice.
The students provide care for the indigent, elderly, and people living with HIV/AIDS. “If students are trained to treat patients who are underserved, they’re going to be far more likely to do that in their private practice,” says chief operating officer Andrea West.
Top Care Is for Everyone
“We set the standards in the state, and we have a great responsibility,” says assistant dean Arnold Rosenheck—which is why the school is expanding its special care and pediatric clinics. “These clinics treat some of the most vulnerable populations; for the special-needs population in particular, there’s often no other place where they can get care,” says the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine dean, Cecile Feldman.
Dental care is the most prevalent unmet medical need for children living in the United States, and the clinic’s expansion will allow the school, which is the largest pediatric provider in the region, to treat even more children than the 10,000 it now sees each year. Like Kaitlyn, many will emerge with better teeth—and a better future. The smile she beamed upon seeing her new face, says Aga, “didn’t just make my day; it made my month.”
He has a self-portrait of Kaitlyn echoing the sentiment: “Thank you. You didn’t just make my day. You made my life.”