Over 40 University of Washington dental, medical, and pre-health students and faculty, along with volunteers from Greater Seattle Cares and Medical Teams International, gather for a group photo before serving Tent City 3 with free medical and dental care.
With Tent City 3 having recently transferred from UW to South Seattle, I am taking time to reflect on the opportunities we had as an organization to serve its residents. Though it’s already been six months, it seems like just yesterday Husky Health Bridge was formed. Back in November 2016 I was busy with academic and personal commitments when Marcus explained over lunch his aspirations for forming a club. Tent City 3 was coming to UW over the Winter, and he wanted comprehensive dental care waiting for them. I didn’t have the time, but something in me still said, “yes.”
The amount of planning and at times sheer anxiety for what amounted to a committee of five student directors coordinating our first February 4th event was at times challenging. However, the magnitude of what was accomplished—26 Tent City 3 residents being treated that day by dental students, pre-health students, and UW School of Dentistry faculty—was incredible. Still, something was missing. Amidst the task of helping plan and oversee the event, I was unable to spend more time getting to know our Tent City 3 guests during their stay at UW.
Teddy, who is brought in to provide comfort to patients during their dental procedures, sits calmly on a patient's lap as Dr. Jeffrey advises her student dentists.
It was after that event that I realized I had neglected my very purpose for joining HHB. Throughout the course of our planning, I had not interacted with residents of Tent City 3 as much as I intended. Luckily, we had one more event planned for March, providing me a second chance to get more involved on a more personal level.
During the week leading up to our March event I paid a visit to the Tent City 3 office. At the south-end of campus—the entrance to a parking lot—TC3's white and blue tents came into view. It was a parking lot converted into a community. The front tent had a desk where I introduced myself to a few smiling residents. As I encouraged those at the front desk to spread the word for our upcoming event, a resident began speaking with me. He had received extractions on a number of severely infected upper teeth at our first clinic and was scheduled to get three more extractions at the next. That's when I learned first-hand about a very real concern that stigmatizes some homeless individuals.
He showed me his smile, revealing numerous missing upper front teeth. In his life, the stigma of not having a healthy smile caused him many challenges. He shared with me that his missing teeth greatly reduced his confidence during job interviews. I don’t know what that would be like, but if you can imagine not having your front teeth and trying to find employment, you might agree that securing a job would be very difficult. Indeed, after speaking with a coordinator from Greater Seattle Cares, I confirmed that Tent City residents who receive dentures typically find employment and permanent housing within a couple months.
Dr. Stewart evaluates a Tent City 3 resident as her student dentist looks on. Dedicated faculty advisors like Dr. Stewart oversee all treatment carried out by student dentists during UW School of Dentistry outreach events ensuring patients receive the highest quality of care during their procedures.
The price for dentures makes them relatively manageable financially compared to other popular prostheses like dental implants. However, not everyone has the time or resources required, and there is still much need for many Tent City residents who are missing their smiles to be fitted with dentures. I was pleased to hear that Greater Seattle Cares has been able to identify six residents from our March event who are eligible to receive dentures. Getting dentures is a long process involving several dental appointments, and thanks to Greater Seattle Cares, there is a system in place for following up with those in pursuit. We hope to find a charitable dental office with a big heart willing to donate their time and resources to make dentures a reality for all six residents to confidently and successfully move on in life.
On the day of our March event, I made sure to talk with as many Tent City 3 residents as possible. I learned from them that homelessness is temporary. Many of them are working hard to change their lives. Homelessness is also stigmatized and difficult to escape once inside. However, thanks to organizations like Tent City 3, individuals who are often victims of rising living costs and employment misfortunes are able to find a community of support, work hard to eventually leave the camp, and obtain a safe residence once again. I am proud to serve them in their efforts and will continue to say "YES!" when called upon to do so.
— Mark Van Duker