Diane Greenwood is finally getting some relief from the constant pain in her mouth.
After life-long gum disease ravaged her oral health, Greenwood, a retired nurse in Florence, is finishing up a year of free dental care provided by a dental practice in town.
Another Florence resident James Brida, 63, is also wrapping up a year of free care at Strong & Healthy Smiles in Florence. He doesn’t have many of his back teeth left and is trying to save what he can.
They are two of the three participants of the “Sharing Smiles” program offered by Dr. Sue Keller who works on select patients who can’t afford dental care. Chosen from applicants nominated by family and friends, these patients get free services for one year that include preventive care along with treatment of oral problems such as cavities, abscesses and gum disease. Depending on the condition of their teeth, patients may get up to four cleanings in the year-long period.
“It’s nice to have the opportunity to work with some folks where you can actually help them out and make a difference,” Keller said.
This is the second time her practice has offered the program and it is accepting a new round of nominations through Dec. 19.
Last year Keller received nine applications and accepted five people after conducting in-person interviews which included evaluating their level of need.
There is no dollar limit on the care each person receives, but lab fees for things like dentures are not included and the dentist will not perform complicated procedures like removing wisdom teeth, Keller said.
Greenwood, 67, started the program after a lifetime of pain.
Growing up, she was the youngest of five children and there wasn’t a lot of extra money for trips to the dentist, she says. Her mother worked full time as a nurse to provide for the family and her father was disabled.
“It just wasn’t affordable,” she said.
Still, her dental problems were taking root. Just biting into a sandwich could make her gums bleed, she says. The few times she did end up in the dentist’s chair as a child, she remembers fits of anxiety.
“I know my mother had all her teeth taken out at a young age, so I wonder if it is hereditary,” she said.
As an adult, Greenwood says, she spent thousands of dollars to get cavities filled, but the pain in her mouth persisted. Decades of not getting regular cleanings had caused her gums to recede. Her bone started to dissolve and her teeth began falling out.
“My mouth has always been in pain,” she said. “There wasn’t a day when my mouth didn’t hurt.”
Once she retired, less income meant she couldn’t keep up with care she needed, and her oral health continued to deteriorate.
A friend who had heard about Keller’s free care offer nominated Greenwood.
When Greenwood first arrived at the dentist’s office, she expected to hear that most of her teeth would have to be pulled, but, she says, she was pleasantly surprised when Keller said a number of them could be saved.
“I had already gotten myself prepared that maybe there wasn’t that much that they could do,” she said.
Keller also was able to construct a new tooth, not attached to the gum, but bonded between the teeth.
Greenwood says she expects that the dentist will also be able to reconstruct another tooth that recently cracked in half near the front of her mouth. She also has been able to get a number of fillings replaced and is preparing to get dentures for part of her mouth.
“Even though it’s not costing me a thing, I don’t feel like I am being short-changed,” Greenwood said. “I feel like I am being treated like I’m paying. So I feel very fortunate. I feel very blessed.”
‘Like winning the lottery’
For Brida, a retired custodian, Keller’s free care has been a godsend.
“To me, it was almost like winning the lottery. It was definitely a gift,” he said.
When Brida was growing up in Northampton, he remembers, there were regular trips to the neighborhood candy store, followed by sitting in the dentist’s chair to get cavities drilled.
As an adult, though, dental care fell by the wayside as he struggled to make ends meet.
“So, I didn’t go for over 20 years,” he said. “I knew that I needed a lot of dental work.”
Brida says so far he has had several teeth filled and four teeth pulled by Keller.
“It’s been about as pleasant an experience you can have at a dentist,” he said.
The patients chosen for free care have to be able to take appointments on short notice as Keller works them in to slots made vacant by other patients’ cancellations. So far, she says, that hasn’t been a problem, since most of the patients who have taken part are retired and have flexible schedules.
Sharing Smiles, Keller says, was born out of another program she started in an attempt to make dental care more affordable for people. That one is a pre-paid plan called “Smile Shares” which she still offers.
“Preventative dental care is so important,” she said. “Folks get themselves into much larger problems by waiting. Going to the dentist even once a year can save people so much trouble in the long run.”
Once their year of free care ends, Keller hopes the “Sharing Smiles” patients will be able to return for treatment when needed. She coaches them on how to better care for their teeth at home, like brushing after meals, cutting back on sugary drinks and drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day.
Greenwood, though, doesn’t expect to need any further care. “This should be my last dentist, that’s it,” she said.
To nominate someone for the “Sharing Smiles” program write a one page letter explaining why the person you are nominating deserves a year of free dental care.
Email applications to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the program, call 413-586-9363.