Dental School gives care to migrant workers’ children

Twelve volunteers are helping migrant farm workers’ children in Olivia, Minn.

by Jerret Raffety

Andrea Ramirez, 9, found out last week that she is dangerously close to having her first cavity.

She received her checkup from the Dental School residents, students, faculty members and staff members. The group of 12 went to Olivia, Minn., for four days last week to offer free treatment to children of migrant workers between the ages of 3 and 12.

Andrea’s family came to Minnesota from Crystal City, Texas. Her father works in the sugar beet fields south of Blaine, Minn.

Andrea’s mother, Michelle Ramirez, said the children benefit in many ways from the Dental School volunteers.

“The most important thing is that most migrant families don’t qualify for medical assistance all the time, and this service is free so it really helps out,” Michelle Ramirez said. “When they come here, the dentists here teach them a lot – how to brush their teeth and how important it is.”

The workers in Olivia are some of the 20,000 migrant farm workers who come to rural Minnesota to work in the agricultural industry.

“The program is good because it helps a lot of people,” Andrea Ramirez said.

She said she wants to participate in something like this when she grows up because, despite her young age, she knows how expensive dental work can be.

The volunteers from the Dental School helped more than 130 children by delivering education on dental hygiene, examinations, cleanings, fillings, fluoride treatment, plastic sealants and referring children to other dentists for further treatment.

Thomas Beckman, a clinical specialist in the Dental School, said the first two days were devoted to examinations and the second two were designated for treatment of oral ailments.

The University brought four treatment units that are equipped with suction devices, an X-ray machine, a portable dental chair and dental light.

“It’s basically a dental office that can be packed into a van,” Beckman said.

Les Martens, a Dental School professor, helped organize the program when it began in 1996.

“Many of (the migrant children) have grown up without the benefit of being seen by a dentist,” Martens said. “We’re encountering people with very little contact with dental and oral health education – some of these are relatively new concepts to them.”

Martens said that in past projects, up to 20 percent of children examined had one or more teeth so badly rotted that the teeth had to be removed. In recent years, however, new science, technology and better materials have enhanced the program.

“Every year, if we can convert a couple hundred more kids to practicing good dental care, that seems like good progress to me,” Martens said.

One of the program’s goals is to incorporate outreach into the Dental School’s curriculum, Martens said.

Jason Zimmerman, a second-year pediatric dentistry resident, said the migrant dental clinic is good practice for what he has studied at the University and for his postresidency plans.

“I think, for my own value, I really enjoy working on this population because they’re fun to work on, they’re easy to work on and they normally appreciate the care, even though they may not know the specifics,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not just someone coming into your office and saying, ‘Here, see my kid and I’ll pay this ‘x’ number of dollars.’ This means a lot more – it’s very rewarding.”

Beckman said the duration of the program has shrunk from two weeks to four days in recent years, but the need for dental care hasn’t changed.

“If we went out there for a month, we would stay busy for the whole time,” Beckman said.