Plenty to smile about
Ryan Thomas had not been to a general dentist in 10 years. Now 25, Ryan contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, when he was 7 years old and within days he was paralyzed from the neck down. A lifetime of physical therapy has helped him regain some use of his upper body, but Ryan still cannot walk and needs a motorized wheelchair.
His condition made regular visits to the dentist difficult because many dental offices can’t accommodate patients in wheelchairs. He eventually stopped going to the dentist after high school since he was away at college and his teeth felt fine.
But then his mother, Gayle Thomas, heard about Wichita State University’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry program, where new dentists provide care at reduced rates during their 12-month advanced residency training.
Via Christi Health provided more than $100,000 in funding for the program as part of its community benefit in fiscal year 2011, and its Wichita hospitals are the program’s medical sponsors.
As a result of that financial support, Ryan began receiving dental care in October from Dan Stipe, DDS, a dental resident in the program.
“He hadn’t had great access to a dentist because of his condition,” Stipe says. “I was a little apprehensive myself because I’d never treated anyone in a wheelchair before.”
But Stipe and other staff members at WSU’s AEGD clinic learned how to safely transfer Ryan from his wheelchair to the dental chair.
“It showed that they cared enough at WSU to make sure all of their patients are comfortable,” Ryan says.
Stipe cleaned Ryan’s teeth and filled five cavities during a series of appointments last fall.
“I think the WSU dentistry staff has taken exceptionally good care of Ryan,” says his mother, Gayle, who serves as executive director of Witness Project of Kansas, a nonprofit program that teaches African-American women about early detection of breast and cervical cancer. “They were concerned about his medical needs and how best they could help him.”
Via Christi provides financial support to the WSU program and serves as its hospital sponsor because it improves access to low-cost dental care for Wichita-area residents like Ryan.
Dexter Woods, DDS, the residency program’s director, says many people don’t realize that oral health can have a direct impact on their overall health. He says the partnership between the WSU program and Via Christi “enables us to look at the total health of the patient — not just their mouth and not just their body.”
A study conducted by Via Christi Health in 2009 on Emergency Department admissions found that 1.5 percent of all visits to Via Christi hospitals were dental-related and that many children and seniors did not have access to dental services, says Renee Hanrahan, Via Christi Health director of Community Benefit.
In addition to providing advanced training to six new dental school graduates a year and low-cost dental care, the program hopes to encourage young dentists like Stipe to stay in Kansas, Woods says.
In September 2011, the residency program moved into a new $7 million clinic and classroom building near 29th and Oliver, adjacent to WSU’s Hughes Metroplex. The clinic has 18 dental chairs, two surgical suites and a simulation lab where residents undergo advanced training on robotic mannequins.
Now, Woods says, WSU would like to expand the residency program to two years, with residents rotating through dental clinics in Western Kansas to increase access to dental care in underserved rural areas of the state.
“There’s a huge void in oral care for many people in Wichita and rural areas of Kansas,” says Laurie Labarca, chief operating officer of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. “We’re helping to train dentists who will stay in Kansas and deliver that care.”