“NCEF trustees are very grateful for the support that Physicians Regional and Lee Memorial’s Children’s Hospital have been providing to children whose dental problems are too severe to be treated at NCEF Pediatric Dental Center. They are among a long list of community-minded public and private partners who are making a significant difference for Collier County’s underprivileged and at-risk children.”
__ Anne Welsh McNulty, trustee, Naples Children and Education Foundation (founders of the Naples Winter Wine Festival)
EAST NAPLES — When a child hasn't ever been to the dentist or had good oral care at home, their first dental checkup can identify problems that will take hours to fix.
To make the child more comfortable, dentists often recommend putting the child under general anesthesia.
For children of low-income families in Collier County, there's a way to get help. A public-private partnership paid for in part by the Naples Children and Education Foundation (NCEF), sponsors of the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival, helps provide access to these specialized and other dental services.
The foundation commissioned a study in 2005 to assess needs in the community and determined that dental health was a top priority for low-income children in Collier County. The foundation partnered with the University of Florida College of Dentistry (which provides the faculty and residents), Collier Health Services (which provides the administrative aspect of the program, including support staff) and Edison State College (which provides the land and other support services) to build a world-class training program for pediatric dentists and to provide services to the community.
The NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, which opened in 2008, had more than 13,000 patient visits in 2011, said Lauren Governale, a University of Florida College of Dentistry clinical associate professor and NCEF Pediatric Dental Center clinic director.
The center in East Naples provides services ranging from routine procedures, such as dental exams, cleanings, X-rays, fluoride treatments and sealants, to oral and IV sedations. Children requiring more extensive work are treated at Physicians Regional-Collier or HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers.
"I remember when Dr. Governale sat down initially with us and brought stories and photographs about these children and their lives," recalled Kandy DeWitt, director of surgical services at HealthPark. "Not being able to get care impacted not only the child but their family. Their mouths were so swollen that they couldn't eat and were in pain. Prior to this program, there wasn't a dentist who would care for this population of children."
HealthPark has pediatric anesthesiologists who work with Governale as she performs full-mouth restorations and other challenging procedures.
Helen Vialpando, director of surgical services for the Physicians Regional Healthcare System, said it is "very exciting and very gratifying to be able to do this for the community."
As part of this program, the hospital saw 220 children in 2011 and 216 in 2010, providing pre-op work, an operating room, anesthesia personnel, nursing staff and post-anesthesia care on an outpatient basis.
"The children who need dental work are in pain and very self-conscious," she said. "When the work is done, we tell them they are going to have a princess or handsome prince smile. They have confidence and are more comfortable. I've seen moms cry."
Vialpando also notes that the pediatric dental residents benefit from taking care of these children: "To feel their enthusiasm is invigorating, and to be able to help train these individuals is very rewarding."
The dental drills, X-ray machines and much of the other pediatric equipment at Physicians Regional was provided through grants from the foundation.
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of stories about Collier County children’s charities, leading up to the Naples Winter Wine Festival dinners and auction next weekend.
The center opened in December 2008 with three pediatric dental residents and today has nine.
Governale said there were no specialty pediatric dental services available in Collier County for new Medicaid-eligible children before the foundation provided financial support, along with state-matching dollars, for construction of the 20,000-square-foot building on the Edison campus.
The dental center has 17 operating stations, including two suites for IV and oral sedation services. NCEF also is providing the money for the equipment, supplies and staffing for many years until the clinic can be self-sustaining.
The vast majority of patients are certified under Florida's Medicaid program. A sliding fee scale is offered for other low-income children.
"The center is proud to be improving the oral health of these at-risk children," Governale said. "All of the faculty members and residents agree that the level of dental disease found in the population that the center serves is like nothing that they have ever experienced before. Many children present to the center with rampant dental decay, and the residents and staff are working diligently to help improve the oral health of these children."
Governale recalled treating a teenage girl who suffers from cerebral palsy, which caused her to excessively grind her teeth.
The girl's mother said her daughter was in extreme pain but, even though she had Medicaid coverage, she couldn't find anyone to treat her because the girl wouldn't cooperate.
Governale was able to restore the girl's teeth while the patient was under general anesthesia, not only saving her smile cosmetically but improving her quality of life by enabling her to chew her food.
"We are very thankful for the tremendous vision and support of the Naples Children and Education Foundation," Governale said. "Every community is in need of such a facility, and we are fortunate enough to have one in Collier County."