LOWELL — Imagine if all dental visits included being greeted by a comfort dog named Bear, and staff dressed in festive tooth-shaped smocks.
That was the welcoming scene for more than 40 students from local schools at Middlesex Community College’s on-campus dental hygiene clinic on Wednesday.
The students from the Bartlett Community Partnership School and Butler Middle School received free oral health care at the college’s on-campus dental hygiene clinic thanks to a dental care initiative launched by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.
The program, called Give Kids a Smile, is the result of a new partnership between the college, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, Regis College, Lowell Community Health Center and the Lowell Public Schools.
Volunteers from the college and area dental programs applied sealants to the students’ teeth in the newly renovated space, which features high-tech exam rooms equipped to provide preventative and restoration dental services to the community.
Ryan spoke about the connection between healthy teeth and life outcomes while attending the morning clinic, visiting with both the students and clinic staff.
“The research shows that many kids who end up being disciplined in school and placed on detention — all the things that can spiral and cause them to leave school — lots of them have untreated tooth decay,” said Ryan. “Our hope is that the program helps to make them better students, and allows them to complete their education in a way that prevents them from ever interacting with the criminal justice system.”
Kadeen Healy, a social worker at Butler, offered a firsthand example of how dental problems impact learning, saying that “we’re happy to take part in these public-health initiatives because a lot of students don’t get regular dental care. They end up in the school nurse’s office with ice packs for their dental pain.”
Ryan was accompanied by the department’s comfort dog, Bear, an English Labrador, whose 90-pound frame belied his gentle demeanor. He patiently absorbed several hours of enthusiastic attention, with students petting his thick, black coat while they waited for their dental treatment.
Comfort animals like Bear are specially trained to provide companionship during stressful situations.
Bear was also a poster dog for good oral hygiene, as several wide-mouth yawns revealed a set of sparkling-white canine teeth.
In one of the dozen exam spaces, Joanna Oppedisano, a registered dental hygienist and certified dental assistant, was sealing the molars of Butler student Anthony Hanson, 11, whom she called “an excellent patient.”
Oppedisano graduated from Middlesex, and teaches in the dental assisting program at the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield, a four-year public high school serving 12 communities north of Boston.
“We volunteered to come in today to get our students some clinical experience to help out with the teeth sealing,” Oppedisano said. She was assisted by Ashley Toro, a dental program senior.
“With Anthony, we’re sealing his 6-year molars, because his 12-year molars are not quite in, yet,” Oppedisano said. “Basically, the sealant is like a raincoat, a protective material that fills in the grooves of the tooth’s surface to protect the teeth and keep out decay.”
Because of the work being done on his teeth, Hanson couldn’t respond verbally when asked how his treatment was going, but he gave the thumbs-up sign.
Over in the post-treatment arts-and-crafts area, dental students Jenna Wray and Malhayla Johnson — wearing purple medical scrubs — distributed activity sheets with healthy-teeth themes.
“We’re all in the dental assisting program, and we’re here today to help out with the kids,” said Wray, a junior. “Once we graduate, we’re automatically certified dental assistants. Some of us are going down the path of dentists, dental hygienists or orthodontics.”
Roaming the halls were high school students Morgan Vieira and Sebastian Cadavid. Both were dressed in oversized tooth-shaped smocks, answering questions from nervous or curious children.
Maureen Strauss, a professor in the dental hygiene department at the college, who recruited members from the dental community to volunteer for the sealant clinic, said she hopes the program can become an annual event.
“We’ve already provided over 500 oral screenings,” Strauss said. “And we have provided classroom education to close to 800 children, where we talk about nutrition and hidden sugars, brushing, flossing and healthy habits.”
After their treatment, each child received a goodie bag with dental-care products donated by Henry Schein, a distributor of health care and dental supplies, the American Dental Association and the Middlesex Dental Hygiene Association.
Besides bringing Bear, Ryan also distributed a bright red cinch sack to each student that contained another goodie bag from the college.
Superintendent of Schools Joel Boyd stopped by the arts-and-crafts area to visit with the students, encouraging them to use the giveaway plastic hourglass at home to correctly measure their tooth-brushing time.
“I think this is a great partnership between our schools, the community college and the district attorney’s office to make sure that we’re able to support our young people in every aspect of their lives. The Smile program is one aspect of supporting our children with free dental care toward a healthy lifestyle,” he said.
By midmorning, the treatments were complete, and the students were boarding the buses to go back to their schools.
Reinol Chim, a fifth grader at Butler, summed up his impression of the day.
“I was nervous at first, but it felt OK. I would do it again,” he said.