MANCHESTER, N.H. – Mouths open, eyes hidden by sunglasses, Keyla and Samuel Chilel appeared to doze off in their dental chairs. Keyla was having a tooth pulled; her brother was getting a filling.
Seated at opposite ends of the city’s mobile dental clinic, neither sibling flinched as a pair of New Hampshire Army Guard dental teams worked from behind clear plastic curtains.
The see-through quality of the protective shields gave a hazy, dream-like symmetry to the procedures, which took less than an hour to complete.
“You’re doing great,” whispered Maj. Jacob Akers after he gave Keyla a shot of novocaine.
During the pilot run of an oral health collaborative between the Guard and the Manchester Health Department, held Jan. 7 at the Beech Street Elementary School, Keyla and Samuel were among 11 schoolchildren treated.
Hundreds more in the city’s dental care program are being scheduled, said Andrea Iasillo, a certified public health dental hygienist for the Manchester Health Department. Since 2007, the program has grown from eight to all 21 public schools, serving more than 600 students a year.
Most of the children are undocumented or from families with refugee status, Iasillo said.
“They cannot afford the care or are afraid to apply for it,” Iasillo said. “We don’t turn anyone away. We follow HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) guidelines.”
Through the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training program, which pairs military training requirements with community needs, the Guard will provide fillings, extractions and preventive dental care at no cost to the city, schools or families.
“This is beyond fantastic,” Iasillo said. “You guys can do stuff we can’t do in a normal school day.”
For the Guard’s small contingent of Army dentists and dental assistants, many of whom work in civilian practices, the homegrown partnership is an opportunity to gain experience while helping local communities. They’ll staff the mobile clinic every month during drills and annual training.
“I’ve been in the medical detachment my whole career, which is a little over eight years,” said Sgt. Katie Lindh, a hygienist for family dentistry in Hampton. “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Fauver, the state dental surgeon, likened the clinic to a medical readiness exercise the detachment supported in El Salvador in 2013.
“We did the same thing,” said Fauver, who has a dental practice in Chester, Vermont. “We pulled a lot of teeth, and the kids spoke Spanish too.”
Spc. Hayley Minahan, an emergency medical technician and firefighter for Newmarket, took her first day in stride.
“It’s pretty cool,” the dental assistant said.
Akers, who commutes from Standish, Maine, has been a dentist with the detachment for six years.
“Giving back is always a good thing,” he said. “Especially to those who are underserved.”