"Saved My Life"

"Saved My Life"

Richard A. Wiberg, D.D.S.*:


The title of this article is a quote from Ms. Terry Miller. It may sound dramatic, but every word is true. Ms. Miller was referring to the dental treatment she received from Drs. Bonnie Swenby and Frank Rabb, volunteers for the Donated Dental Services (DDS) program.

The Patient

Terry Miller was a patient with few financial resources who found herself in need of a kidney transplant. She was undergoing lengthy dialysis twice a week. She was fatigued and only able to work a limited number of hours. Her medical insurance would cover her medical bills: dialysis, hospitalization, surgery, and post-surgical treatments. Her sister had tested out as a good medical match and had generously volunteered to donate one of her kidneys. But before the transplant could be performed, she needed to have extensive dental treatment and a healthy mouth free of infection.

Fortunately for Ms. Miller, Dr. Swenby, in general practice, and Dr. Rabb, a periodontist, are volunteer dentists for the DDS program. With their help, her restorative and periodontal needs were completed and her mouth was returned to a healthy state. With the addition of a full upper denture, she was ready to have her transplant.

When you look at a picture of Terry Miller now, you will see someone with a broad smile. Her transplant surgery was done in March, and it is obvious from that smile that she is a lot healthier and happier. She feels more energetic and is hoping to be back to work full time by the time this article is published.

The Program

The DDS program is a part of an ADA sponsored national program, The National Foundation of Dentistry For The Handicapped. Each state program has a state coordinator. Minnesota’s coordinator is Ms. Cindy Benson. Her salary and the administrative expenses of the program are paid for with an appropriation from the state legislature. Those are the only expenses the program incurs. The dental treatment, the lab procedures, the dental materials, and even office space from Patterson Dental are all donated at no cost to the patient.

Ms. Benson screens all applications for the Minnesota program. These patients must be elderly, disabled, or medically compromised without the financial resources to pay for dental treatment. The application is rather extensive to ensure compliance with the goals and parameters of the program. Before accepting a patient from this pool of people, the volunteer dentist is sent a patient profile and is free to accept or not accept that person. These patients could be persons with physical handicaps, on very tight budgets, or those who need help to get their oral health to a level that afterward can be sustained with routine care.

It was in 2003 that the Minnesota Dental Association and the Minnesota Dental Laboratory Association officially endorsed this program. It has gradually grown to include more than 300 dentists and 96 dental laboratories. Since that beginning, more than $1,700,000 worth of free dental care has been provided to some very needy people, among them people who do not qualify for dental insurance and are not eligible for government assistance. An exception is made for Medicaid recipients who cannot find a provider and qualify for the program. There are close to 40 states involved in the program, and Minnesota leads all of them in the value of treatment provided per patient.

The Principle

Members of our profession are often criticized for not treating people having financial difficulties or those covered by government programs. We are accused of being selfish and uncaring. We are blamed as being the chief roadblock to solving the access problem. Lately a broad coalition of groups has used that erroneous public perception to promote changes to our work force that would dramatically alter the traditional dental practice where the dentist is in charge of and responsible for a team approach to treating patients.

Contrary to that public misperception, I have found the members of our profession to be very unselfish and donate their care over a very broad spectrum of opportunities. Our public image is hurt because we make these contributions and never seek publicity for doing so. We recognize there are access difficulties and have actively promoted programs to help the underserved.

In my capacity as a former Trustee and an officer of the MDA, I have had the good fortune of meeting many dentists throughout our state. I have always been impressed with their generosity. I have found that generosity to take many different avenues. We have members who volunteer at community clinics. We have members who volunteer in foreign countries. We have members who annually volunteer for Give Kids A Smile. We have members who selflessly agree to treat public program people even though they suffer financial loss in doing so. And almost all of us donate services, sometimes on a daily basis, to people in our practices we know are having financial difficulties: people on fixed Social Security income, people out of work, people with a spouse in the military, people with broken families. I cannot begin to list the possibilities.

Recently the MDA organized a new committee, the Community Services Committee. The Committee is staffed by representatives from several charitable dental activities. The purpose of the Committee is to stress the obligation we all have to give back to our communities. To aid in doing so, the Committee will try to identify and promote the many programs and activities that are available.

What I find attractive about the DDS program is treating patients in my office, with my staff, with my equipment, and with the dental supplies I am used to. Our specialists have been extremely generous and helpful in supporting the program. And very often I am getting help from a dental laboratory that I usually work with; a lab that has also volunteered its services and supplies. I am able to develop and follow a treatment plan free of all insurance or outside considerations. The only paperwork I need to file is a simple postcard after I’m finished. I am free to see as many or as few patients as I am comfortable with. Most volunteers see one or two patients a year.

Please give some thought to joining this program. There is absolutely no waste. It is well managed. It is convenient. Not all cases are as dramatic as Ms. Miller’s, but you can make a significant difference in someone’s life. Best of all, the patients are extremely grateful. There is also the intangible reward you receive when helping someone else, a reward that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, but is more valuable.

With many thanks to the 314 dentists and 99 labs in Minnesota who volunteer for DDS, we invite you to join us! We are happy to have treated more than 200 patients as our fiscal year ends, and with more than 100 currently in treatment and more than 300 patiently waiting for your expertise, we need you. Learn more at www.nfdh.org and sign up electronically, or call Ms. Cindy Benson at (651) 454-6290 or toll free at (866) 242-6290 and tell her you’d like to help.


*Dr. Wiberg is a member of the newly formed Community Services Committee of the Minnesota Dental Association. He is a former president of the Association, and is a general dentist in private practice in Saint Paul, Minnesota.