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ALL ABOARD THE DENTAL EXPRESS!

MCR Health bus is providing an amazing service to the community.

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock

PICTURES: Whitney Patton

With the clock barely striking 7 am on a recent morning, Esperanza Gamboa rushed to get ready for a bustling day when her cell phone rang unexpectedly. Surprised at the sunrise call, Gamboa – Director of Outreach and Eligibility for MCR Health – answered to a boisterous and excited woman rattling off a battalion of questions before Gamboa could barely squeak in hello. “She was so excited to find out about the Dental Express and wanting to book it and repeatedly asking if it was really a free screening service,” said Gamboa, who lights up and shares contagious smiles when she speaks about helping her community. “I had to stop her and ask who she was because I didn’t have her contact in my phone.”

The woman ended up revealing she worked for a Manatee County elementary school, and she immediately wanted to book MCR Health’s Dental Express, a state-of-the-art mobile dental bus servicing Manatee, Sarasota, and Desoto counties that not only offers free dental screenings for kids ages 0-18, but also reduced-fee services ranging from dental cleanings and fluoride treatments to sealants and referrals to a dental home.

While the bus first rolled into action in 2014, this summer MCR Health revved up its community outreach and now shuttles the bus daily to many area schools, festivals, and events throughout the neighboring counties, often working six days a week. “The news has really spread, and the service has taken off with a high demand,” said Gamboa. “My phone rings like this non-stop with requests and people wondering if this is really a free mobile screening service. This woman who called me wanted a date that was already booked. I told her I would have to email her what I still had available. Our calendar is getting really busy.”

The skyrocket of demand reflects the fundamental need to get kids – especially the underserved and uninsured – to the dentist, Gamboa shared. The pediatric mobile dental service extends as a branch of MCR Health – a private, not-for-profit healthcare system providing family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN, Behavioral Health, vision, and other medical services. Patients can tap into 30 different healthcare centers, two mobile units, and 13 pharmacies that dot the three counties and offer reduced rates and sliding fee scales for the poor and uninsured. “This truly is a brilliant service of MCR Health and so important to be mobile because so many of our families are underserved and hardworking with some parents not only working one job, but two or three, and they may have two, three, or four kids,” said Gamboa whose voice rose with passion. “Many live in remote areas, like Arcadia and Parrish, and have to take off work and drive 45 or 50 minutes to get their kids to a dentist. How about if they don’t even have a car?”

When children fall ill to the flu and spike fevers, parents tend to spring into action and drop everything to get their kids to the doctor or an emergency room, Gamboa says. However, when a tooth problem emerges in their children, many parents who don’t have access to regular dentists or the ability to easily take off work postpone treatment until a problem flares out of control. According to the American Dental Association, cavities or tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of childhood. When untreated, it can result in pain, infection and even inhibit eating, speaking, and playing. “How can kids go to school and learn if they are in pain?” asked Gamboa.

With the Dental Express, treatment comes to you. Parents can still go to work, and kids can attend school while also popping into the bus parked right on their campus for a dental checkup. Bright turquoise, orange, and neon green color the bus in bold stripes alongside giant pictures of smiling children brushing their teeth. Stepping inside, you forget this medical unit rolls on wheels because it unfolds identical to a dental office, complete with two dental chairs, state-of-the-art equipment, a supervisor, board-certified dentists, and a dental hygienist.

Sometimes children can catch a glimpse of the tooth fairy donning a cloud of pink tulle and ready to welcome them. All children are eligible to pre-register for a free dental screening, and payments for services such as cleanings and sealants can be made through Medicaid, dental insurance, or a flat fee of $25 made prior to dental bus day at school.

When the Dental Express pulls up to schools from Sarasota to Arcadia, the dental team treats about 25 to 30 kids a day. On festival and event days in the community, about 60 kids a day funnel through the bus. “We have a wonderful, dedicated team,” said Gamboa. “They work weekends – Sundays even sometimes. They truly have to love what they do and be dedicated to serve our patients. Our providers are passionate and care deeply about our community.”

The impacts of the dental bus shine boldly in the stories of the families who seek treatment. Overwhelmed with emotion, tears dampened the face of a Manatee County father who recently gained custody of his 3-year-old son. His little boy had never seen a dentist, and issues had erupted throughout his mouth. Unsure where to turn, the father discovered the Dental Express where he not only found dental treatment, but also guidance in linking a pediatrician through MCR Health for his son. “We helped him get an appointment with a pediatrician, and he was so grateful,” said Gamboa. “The Dental Express helps change the lives and well-being of children. It’s not just about dental health, but overall health. We want to educate our community. If people are not aware of what we offer, they can’t take advantage.”

Education reigns key at MCR Health where providers not only treat patients, but also spend the time to educate them about illnesses, prevention, and how to access healthcare. The Dental Express strives to promote general wellness and healthy kids, reaching as many children as possible.

Compassion and care for the community inspired the creation of MCR Health 40 years ago when a small cluster of concerned citizens leased an abandoned schoolhouse in Parrish for $1 to open their first medical facility. Building year after year, MCR Health has grown into a model of community-based care and preventive education that healthcare workers nationwide tune into study. Known for opening the most affordable pharmacies in the region, MCR Health established an innovative sliding scale fee program that provides low-income and uninsured patients the dignity that flourishes with helping to pay for their care. In return for affordable care, Gamboa says patients express gratitude.

Leaving a Dental Express event in Sarasota on a recent afternoon, Gamboa noticed a couple with a small child following her across a vast parking lot. “I had parked a long ways away, but they kept following me so I turned around and asked, ‘May I help you?’” Gamboa said. With raw emotion spilling into their voices and tears in their eyes, the couple wanted Gamboa to thank the creators of the Dental Express for them. They had profusely shared kindness toward the dentist and everyone in the bus who cared for their child, however, they wanted the creators to know how much the mobile unit had touched their lives.

“The community is my passion,” said Gamboa, pausing to let the words ruminate. “My community is my life, and I want to work in any way I can to help the underserved find access to healthcare. This is the essence of my life. This is how we all feel at MCR Health.”

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