When we temporarily closed the dental clinic in March, we understood the profound impact it would have on our patients’ oral health. Most of our patients have moderate to severe dental issues, requiring several visits to address the multiple issues that have impacted their ability to smile, eat, and sleep. Lack of fluoridated water, inability to pay for services, and years of deferred or delayed care are just some of the root causes for the dental issues our patients experience. Our patients rely on our free services to address dental issues and alleviate pain so that they can get back to their jobs and families.
We also knew that when it was safe to re-open the dental clinic, we might not have dentists who could volunteer with us, at least not immediately. Those in private practice are focused on keeping their businesses going, meaning they often work on Fridays – the day most volunteer at Oasis. Because many of our volunteer dentists are over 60 and in the high-risk category, we weren’t sure if they would return. As a result, and for the first time in our history, we hired a staff dentist for eight hours per week to provide care to our patients. This, it turns out, has been one of the best things to come out of the pandemic.
Dr. Flo Edwards started in early September and jumped quickly into action, providing almost $12,000 in free dental care during her first six weeks. She has delivered a wide array of dental services – comprehensive exams, extractions, and fillings – and our patients have been thrilled to have access to dental care again. My office is down the hall from the dental suites, and I have a front row seat to their smiles and calls of, “Thank you!” as they leave the clinic.
Being a dentist wasn’t necessarily the plan for Dr. Edwards. Growing up in Portland, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She headed to college in Illinois where she got a degree in biology and economics, minoring in classical studies. She had the prerequisites for medical or dental school and shadowed her parents’ dentist. But, teaching had appeal, and Dr. Edwards got her teaching certification from the University of New England. She taught at Bonny Eagle High School and worked at Spurwink for a while.
Dentistry, however, was still on her mind, and Dr. Edwards applied to dental school. Howard University’s College of Dentistry was at the top of her list. As a Black girl growing up in Maine, she had grown used to standing out and assimilating to those around her. The opportunity to attend a Historically Black University was a chance to be a part of and learn in a community with other Black students. As a daughter of a veteran, Dr. Edwards also decided to apply to the Army Officer Candidate School (OCS). As fate would have it, Dr. Edwards was accepted into both OCS and dental school. Through good advice and fortunate events, Dr. Edwards was able to attend dental school as a member of the military and served as an Army dentist in Kansas for three years after she completed her dental training.
After her time in the Army ended, Dr. Edwards returned to Maine. Her mom still lives in Maine, and the slower pace had appeal. For the past seven years, Dr. Edwards worked at a high volume dental practice but recently left to come to Oasis and a private practice in Auburn. When asked why she liked working at Oasis, Dr. Edwards said, “It’s actually similar to Army dentistry. The patients aren’t paying for the services, so you can take your time and do the work that needs to be done without worrying about payment. It’s pure.” She hopes to increase the number of days she works at Oasis, which is our hope, as well. With the endless demand for our free dental services, increasing access for our patients and community is part of our strategic plan.
COVID has changed dentistry in many ways, but it hasn’t seem to negatively affect how Dr. Edwards takes care of patients. As she put it, “Patients are happier now to see you. Maybe it’s because there are less things for them to do so a trip to the dentist is exciting. I know that I am more appreciative that I get to do what I love to do.”
Our patients, staff and volunteers are thankful for that, too, Dr. Edwards.
Anita Ruff is the executive director of Oasis Free Clinics, a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic, providing care to uninsured members of the community. For more information, call (207) 721-9277 or visit OasisFreeClinics.org. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.