Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dentist goes mobile to fill county need

Nigerian immigrant brings her office to the patient

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Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Dentist Anu Esuola demonstrates the proper technique for brushing the tongue. Watching are Woodmore Elementary School first-graders (from left) Amaya Thompson, Jada Dildy and Izuomo Chukwuocha.
Dentist Anu Esuola has taken her operation on the road to respond to the region’s oral health needs.

Esuola opened her Gentle Dental Care office in Largo nearly four years ago, but volunteer screenings she conducted as part of a program by Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s mobile outreach program a few years later opened her eyes to the need for more than just convenient screenings, she said.

So the Bowie woman, originally from Nigeria, outfitted a van to provide dental screenings and fully treat patients. The mobile unit has a reception and clinic area, bathroom, sterilization area, X-ray equipment and two plasma televisions for patient education videos.

‘‘You feel like you’re in a regular dentist office,” said Esuola, who still maintains her Largo office.

When Esuola first traveled with the Colgate-Palmolive van to different locations throughout Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, she noticed more and more children with untreated cavities or who needed braces, she said.

Esuola recalls one girl, about 5 years old, who had a large cavity. She told Esuola her mother would try to soothe the pain by putting aspirin in the cavity, Esuola said.

Parents skip taking their children to the dentist because they either can’t find a doctor nearby who accepts their insurance, or cannot afford dental care, said Esuola, who has conducted some free screenings.

Mary J. Hayes, a pediatric dentist and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, said there is some disconnect between how people view overall health and dental health. ‘‘We tend to look at them separately,” she said.

People know they have to take care of their teeth for a good smile, but good oral and dental health are not always understood, Hayes said.

Hayes routinely sees children with abscesses, swollen faces and toothaches. Parents think a child’s teeth look fine, but a dentist will notice the real issues, she said.

There is a myth that because baby teeth fall out they do not matter, she said. But the bacteria that cause decay can spread to a child’s permanent teeth, she said.

Esuola celebrated the van launch in March, and so far has traveled to schools in the region and to a health fair in Montgomery County. This prevents parents from losing time from work, and children from losing time from school, she said.

Service is also available for churches and other religious groups, day care centers, nursing homes and organizations.

‘‘We’ll go wherever we’re needed,” she said. That includes three other dentists in her practice, who also staff the van.

Esuola and her husband, Gabriel Esuola, invested about $200,000 in the 32-foot-long van and equipment. Crest later sponsored the project by donating supplies and some funding, Esuola said.

There are seven mobile dentists that the Maryland State Dental Association is aware of, including one in Fort Washington, said executive director Frank McLaughlin. They provide full service to a certain extent, and most are privately owned, he said.

‘‘It’s a good service and we need more of them,” McLaughlin said.

Gentle Dental has a partnership with Howard University Hospital, which will treat patients who cannot be treated in the van, she said. Esuola also hopes to develop partnerships with county health departments for referral services in case a patient cannot find a local dentist for treatment, she said.

‘‘We just want to make a difference,” Gabriel Esuola said. ‘‘The key here is we want people to be aware of this because it’s a great service.”

‘‘No child should die because of lack of dental treatment,” he said, referring to the death in February of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Prince George’s boy who died from complications of an abscessed tooth.

Patricia E. Hayes-Parker, vice president of the county Economic Development Corp., met Esuola in 2006 and offered some direction on carrying out her business plan.

‘‘Her business is a wonderful example of an immigrant community giving back to the U.S. community,” Hayes-Parker said. ‘‘So often we think of immigrants as pulling on the resources of the U.S. communities, and she’s doing just the opposite. She is giving back wonderful skill, technology and service.”