Greg and Wanda Peterson received help from the Community Dental Access Centre Society and now they and society chairman Dominique Berard hope to see the doors to the centre open soon.

Greg and Wanda Peterson received help from the Community Dental Access Centre Society and now they and society chairman Dominique Berard hope to see the doors to the centre open soon.

Give the gift of a smile

Community Dental Access Centre moves closer to its goal of opening doors

Wanda Peterson had a toothache recently.

“I was so scared. I just panicked,” she said. She wasn’t overreacting, she was just remembering her experience with an abscessed  tooth a few years ago when she had no money to pay to see a dentist.

“The walk-in clinic sent me to emergency where I waited for seven hours,” she said.

After a CT scan she was told that she needed surgery — not to remove the affected tooth, but to help stop the infection, which was spreading to the rest of her body. She spent four days in the hospital and had an incision under her chin open for six weeks. The cost was into the thousands of dollars, all for an extraction that would have cost about $100 if done at the right time.

Wanda and her husband, Greg, both have disabilities and there is little left from their pensions after paying for necessities. They finally borrowed $450 from a family member to have her tooth extracted and paid the amount back slowly.

Wanda’s experience is all too common. The Vernon Jubilee Hospital emergency room sees an average of one visit a day for dental emergencies. The medical system allows them to treat life-threatening conditions but not to do any dental work which would treat the cause. The cost to the hospital for dental emergency care in 2006 was $350,000.

The Community Dental Access Centre Society, started in 2002 as the Dental Access Program, and now a registered society, wants that to change. A Community Dental Access Centre, similar to ones operating successfully in other parts of the province, would provide dental care based on a person’s ability to pay with free care in some cases. The program had helped both Wanda and Greg with emergency care in the past but now most funds are going toward getting the clinic into operation.

Greg had a dental emergency caused by lack of care in time because he simply couldn’t afford it.

“Two weeks ago, I had a toothache and took maybe 120 ibuprofen the pain was so bad,” he said. “I thought of trying to pull my own tooth, it was so bad. That caused kidney failure and I had to go to the hospital and stay for one night to be re-hydrated.

“I have a lot of pain that the doctor says could be from my teeth but there’s no help to get teeth fixed, even when it’s hurting your health. I know I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of pain out there.”

Yes, there is. The Dental Access Centre has a waiting list of nearly 400 people of all ages who need care but are not in acute pain. That’s just the people who know about the centre.

“It’s easy to see that helping with dental care would save health care a lot of money. I don’t understand why the government hasn’t stepped in,” Wanda said.

It hasn’t, and isn’t likely to do so any time soon.

The Dental Access Centre Society board of directors members are frustrated but they are keeping on working to raise the funds for affordable dental care in the North Okanagan.

“I have heard the health care system called a ‘toothless system,’ and it is, where dental care is concerned. Dental health affects the whole person and supporting dental care would be a small investment for big savings in the long term,” said Dr. Bob Kersey, a retired dentist who is a member of the board of directors.

Dr. Vic Lepp, also a retired dentist and board member, would like to at least see help to get community clinics established to the point where they can pay most of their own way. Once the centre is operating, some patients can access funding from other programs to pay part or all of the cost of services.

“Most dental decay is preventable but 30 per cent of the population can’t afford to see a dentist regularly. Up to 40 per cent of children have dental decay by kindergarten and rampant dental decay is the top reason for children under the age of 14 to undergo general anesthetic in B.C. hospitals,” he said.

The centre has found a space downtown and renovations are planned. The clinic would operate with paid professional and volunteer staff and could access more funding once it is operating.

The main objective of the centre will be to reduce barriers to quality restorative and preventive oral health care for low- income people, including early intervention for children. Improved dental health will help people manage chronic diseases like diabetes and reduce the risk to babies born to pregnant women who have periodontal disease.

The fundraising goal to open the centre is $450,000. The board has raised approximately $330,000 and needs $120,000 ($40,000 for renovations, $45,000 for equipment, clinic set-up and training, and $35,000 for initial operation costs) to be able to open.

Lepp and Kersey challenged the local dental society to have dentists donate $1,000 each to the centre and about 20 per cent of them did.

Board member Hugh Carter joins the others in wanting to see the clinic available to those who need it as soon as possible.

“We are paying rent for the space and helping with emergencies as much as we can but we want to get a full service which would handle all the problems,” he said.

He’s hoping that local people will think about a donation to the centre as a Christmas gift. He calls it The Gift of a Smile.

“We have had many low-income people donate what they can to this project but we need more help from those who are more fortunate,” said Carter.

For more information or to make a donation, contact the clinic co-managers, Lesly McMillan at 250-308-7163 or Chris Turner at 250-308-4163. Donations in lieu of gifts can be made at any time of year. Donations can also be made online at