By David Weafer
Many of you know that the Forsyth Institute opened its doors in 1914 as a pediatric dental hospital, offering dental care to hundreds of thousands of children across Boston. We recently told you the story of two Bostonians who came to Forsyth for treatment as kids, resulting in a lifetime of good oral health habits. But you might not know how ForsythKids cares for children today. Today, ForsythKids operates as a mobile dental unit and continues to provide preventive dental care to children who need it most. The program just looks a little bit differently than it did in the early 20th Century.
ForsythKids Visits Brickett Elementary School
I recently spent two days with the ForsythKids team at Brickett Elementary School in Lynn, MA, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to give our readers a chance to see the program in action. It is one thing to know ForsythKids’ impact in terms of numbers but a very different thing to see how this mobile dental team changes kids’ lives one by one.
ForsythKids’ co-directors Dr. Helen Nguyen and Mandy Sadri, along with the rest of the team, arrived at Forsyth while it was still dark, coffee in hand. They arrive before sunrise every day, to make sure they have time to reach the community site and set up before the kids arrive at school.
The sun slowly rose behind the Boston skyline while the team double checked paperwork and supplies. We headed toward the lobby when everything was ready and paused to look across the Charles River at the beautiful scene unfolding before getting on the road.
What it Means to be a Mobile Dental Team
Brickett elementary school in Lynn, MA is about a 30-minute drive from Forsyth. We soaked in the downtime this drive provided, knowing we had a busy day ahead of us. When we arrived, the team efficiently hauled multiple loads of 50+ lb. equipment up three flights of stairs and set up the clinic. As a mobile unit, they have to put all the chairs and equipment together from scratch every day. Everyone has a role, from unpacking and sanitizing stations to readying the patient management software and reviewing the lists of kids scheduled for the day.
By the time morning announcements played on the school intercom, ForsythKids was ready to go. The process of seeing the kids fell into a rhythmic pattern. Keiry, ForsythKids’ Patient Advocate, would go to a classroom and bring back 5-6 kids at a time. Dr. Helen examined their teeth and relayed what she saw to Henry, ForsythKids’ program assistant, who would create/update maps of each child’s mouth in the database to keep track of their progress over time.
Next, the child would visit Jan, ForsythKids’ hygienist, to get a cleaning or have sealants and fluoride vitamins applied to their teeth. Finally, the kids would see Keiry again to receive a report for their parents and a goodie bag with a toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, and a pencil for them to take home.
Connecting Kids with Community Providers
Some of the kids received extra papers and I asked what was different. Dr. Helen explained that kids who are designated as “at higher risk” receive a special paper with recommendations to see a dentist soon. For severe cases, Keiry gives the parents a call at the end of the day to alert them of Dr. Helen’s findings and offer assistance in coordinating follow up care in their community. ForsythKids goes above and beyond to care for children’s oral health needs and help to prevent serious health complications from occurring in kids with untreated infections.
As I watched this process, I was surprised to see how differently each of the kids reacted. Some kids hopped right into the chair and proudly showed Dr. Helen their teeth, mouth open wide. Others were hesitant, nearly unwilling to get into the chair. They were only unwilling until “Miss Mandy” assured them that it wouldn’t hurt at all, and that they would even get to choose which flavor “tooth vitamins” (fluoride) they got.
Soothing Anxious Patients
One girl was particularly worried about her exam. She sat waiting with her knees to her chest, hands covering her mouth, and tears welling up in her eyes. The girl next to her extended a comforting hand to calm her. When Miss Mandy saw how worried the little girl was, she sat down next to her to reassure her that Dr. Helen is very nice and that she wouldn’t use anything pointy on her. She told her all about flavored vitamins, and the girl’s tension started easing.
As she made her way to the dental chair, she still looked a bit terrified but once she sat down Dr. Helen also helped her relax. Soon her tears disappeared. She made it through her checkup and got rewarded with pancake syrup flavored vitamins.
All in a Day’s Work
Brickett elementary school has enough kids in need of ForsythKids’ services to justify a two-day stint. The team packed up at the end of the school day having seen half of the 60 kids scheduled. One of the challenges the team frequently faces is that there is not enough staff to cover every day. When we went out to the school the next day, Dr. Helen didn’t have any hygienists supporting her. She had to go into overdrive to complete all the appointments for the second half of the kids.
After many screenings, cleanings, and checks for kids who were absent the day before, the day was done. Raincoats on, we lugged the equipment down the stairs and into the van.
ForsythKids gets up before dawn and visits schools across the Boston area nearly every day during the school year. The work is hard, and the hours are long. This is the only dental care to which many of these kids have access. It was a privilege to witness their team in action, extending patience and kindness towards each child, with sincere dedication to their wellbeing. They may never see where these kids go and who they become years down the road, but they strive to change their lives every day either way.