SOUTHERN PINES – Although more than a decade has since passed, Sharon Harrell, DDS, clearly remembers one particular FirstHealth Dental Care Centers patient.
He was about 8 years old, Hispanic and about to cry.
Sharon Nicholson Harrell, DDS, (seated), prepares to examine a patient at the FirstHealth Dental Care Center-Southern Pines. In 13 years of operation, the Dental Care Centers in Southern Pines, Troy and Raeford have cared for more than 22,000 underserved children in Moore, Montgomery and Hoke counties.
Dr. Harrell suspects there were a couple of reasons for the youngster’s tears. He had never been in a dentist’s office before, and various dental problems had given him a very painful mouth.
“Are there other children?” Dr. Harrell muses. “Of course, there are.” But this little boy – now a young man – holds a special place among the more than 22,000 children the three Dental Care Centers have cared for since 1998.
“Over time, he went from being a patient who was crying and nervous to one who was calming down his cousins when they came in,” Dr. Harrell says.
The FirstHealth Dental Care Centers in Southern Pines, Troy and Raeford have a special place of their own in the FirstHealth of the Carolinas continuum of care. This year, the services they provide to low-income and medically underserved children are being recognized by the FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital Auxiliary.
“To honor Dr. Harrell and the Dental Care Centers staff for their outstanding efforts and to assure no child in the FirstHealth service area will ever be without access to quality dental care, the Moore Regional Hospital Auxiliary is supporting the Dental Care Center Endowment with the proceeds from its 2011 Holiday Ball,” says Auxiliary Chair Julie Martin.
A portion of the money raised by the Ball will go toward daily Dental Care Center operations while the remainder will become seed money for an endowment that supporters hope will eventually reach $3 million, assuring continued services in much the same way that the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation supports the work of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care.
The move toward an endowment began about six years ago during talks involving Dr. Harrell, Dental Care Centers Program Manager David Williams and representatives of the Moore Regional Hospital Foundation. Auxiliary members decided to further the cause after hearing Dr. Harrell’s poignant presentation during Auxiliary grant interviews earlier this year.
She touched hearts as she spoke of such basic needs as dental floss for patient supply packets and piqued imaginations with her hopes for an endowment.
“In little more than a decade, these centers have become one of FirstHealth’s most successful community outreach programs and a national model for oral health care for underserved children,” Martin says. “Since the doors first opened, more than 22,000 low-income children have been served. Remarkably, 88 percent of those eligible in Moore, Montgomery and Hoke counties have found their ‘dental home’ at one of the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers. Now, undeserved children and their families have both options and hope.”
According to Dr. Harrell, the Auxiliary’s support comes at a very good time. Many once-reliable sources of supporting grant funds have either dried up with the economy or turned their attention to non-dental programs. At the same time, the need for dental care for underserved children has grown.
A FirstHealth success story
FirstHealth’s Dental Care Centers got their start 13 years ago when school health nurses, area medical providers and state dental health officials identified dental care as the number one unmet need for low-income children in the FirstHealth service area.
The nurses, long acknowledged as a credible source of information on children’s health, had noticed an alarming number of kids with cavity-filled mouths and few, if any, of the resources needed to take care of them. Their findings were supported by school personnel who also noted that chronic dental pain often contributed to poor classroom performance and by area hospitals that reported a troubling number of dental cases in their emergency rooms.
Information from various sources, including local social services departments and the N.C. Department of Medical Assistance for Medicaid- and Health Choice-eligible children, indicated that nearly half of the 20,000 or so school children in the counties of Moore, Hoke and Montgomery were dentally underserved. (This data didn’t even include statistics on families that met poverty incomes standards but didn’t qualify or wouldn’t apply for public assistance.)
Access to care was also a problem. At the time, few of the region’s dentists took part in publicly assisted programs and those who did accepted only a few public health patients.
Lisa Hartsock, then director of FirstHealth Community Health Services, took note and shared the information with FirstHealth’s leadership. They sympathized, but didn’t consider dental care an appropriate service for a medicine-based organization.
Hartsock, who had started her career as a dental hygienist, persevered, however. With the help of a community task force that included dentists, nurses and community leaders, she convinced the powers-that-be that dental care fit quite neatly into the core purpose supporting FirstHealth services.
“When they saw the need, they defined it by FirstHealth’s core purpose ‘to care for people,’” Dr. Harrell says. “This was certainly a group of people that wasn’t being cared for.”
A new program for FirstHealth
At the time of these early dental care conversations, Dr. Harrell was happily employed as Cumberland County’s public health dental director. She became involved with the FirstHealth task force through her acquaintance with Hartsock and their mutual work with the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers program, and quickly impressed the rest of the task force with her public health experience and expertise.
By October 1998, she had a new job – as director of the new FirstHealth Dental Care Center in Southern Pines. Her duties expanded with the opening of a second center, in Troy, three months later and then a third, in Raeford, in October 1999.
About 70 percent of the young patients during those early days of operation had either never been seen by a dentist or had not been in a dental office for at least a year. Combined, the three centers now record about 1,000 patient visits and accept about 100 new patients each month.
Although the landscape has changed somewhat since the early days of Dental Care Centers care – with five more area dental providers now accepting Medicaid children, there’s been no letting up in demand for the FirstHealth service, Dr. Harrell says.
“Dental is comparable to primary care in the medical field,” she says. “It’s basic care and, as in medicine, early prevention promotes healthy results later in life.”
|FirstHealth Moore Regional Auxiliary Holiday Ball
Saturday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m.
The Carolina Ballroom, Pinehurst
Supporting the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers, which serve and provide dental care for the uninsured and under-served children in our community.
For more information, call (910) 695-7510.