Updated Nov 26, 2012 - 11:08 am
Dental clinic gives new smiles, hope to homeless
PHOENIX -- Last year, Arizona's Health Care Cost Containment (AHCCC) program cut dental work from its list of costs covered. The result has shoved hundreds more homeless clients through the doors of Central Arizona Shelter Services.
"This is probably the only dental care unit in the nation," said Dr. Kris Volcheck.
He's director of the CASS dental clinic. Volcheck opened the clinic in 2001 to take care of Arizonans in need.
"When I first did my survey, 98 percent (of those coming to the shelter) needed dental care and most of them needed extreme dental care."
Volcheck needed volunteers. His first came out of sheer luck when Dr. Earl Weisbrod lost his dentist license, but not his skill at making high quality dentures.
"The volunteer laboratories would take up to a year, and I streamlined that down to about three or four weeks by making the dentures myself," Weisbrod said.
The result has saved both the clinic and the homeless shelters hundreds of dollars per client.
"This clinic is the only place a homeless person can come in and receive $100,000 (worth of work) in implants and bridge work for nothing," said Weisbrod, "And, that's pretty miraculous."
The clinic soon had some of the toughest cases in dental surgery sitting in its chairs, which grew from two seats to eight in a decade.
Recently, Army veteran Troy Burrow sat in a seat. "I'm about to get the last bridge today," he said, "I've had several bridges and crowns through the homeless clinic here."
He said he became homeless after returning home from serving in the Middle East in the early 1990s.
"I wound up sleeping outside a lot, Dumpster diving, and everything that goes with living outside."
Brushing his teeth was farthest from his mind until an abscess tooth demanded his attention.
"I ate so much Tylenol that I thought I had damaged my stomach, because that's all I had to eat to keep the pain down," he went on, "I couldn't chew, the left side of my face was swollen. I looked like I had a problem."
When someone's face looks pained or teeth are missing, Volcheck has noticed employers aren't likely to hire that person.
"If you're missing teeth, your credibility in the job market is just about zero," he said.
There was no need telling that to Burrows, who already felt the pain.
"I stayed away from people because basically, physically, mentally, the things I was going through, how I looked." He felt ashamed and avoided human contact work, "I was a furniture mover, a truck driver."
He jumped at the chance to get his teeth fixed when he learned about the CASS Dental Clinic. Several bridge surgeries later, he has a job helping others gain their confidence and return to the work force.
Among those who worked on restoring Burrow's smile, was Melissa Nudi.
"We were the first two students and we got to meet Dr. Volcheck and man! He's just so nice!"
Nudi understood where Burrows was coming from.
"I was on meth," she said, "gosh, for 21-years." It wasn't until someone made a dark prediction about her 15-year old son's future that she surrendered.
"Somebody told me, 'You're going to die and your son's going to look over your casket and think, ‘My Mom didn't love me enough to quit.' "
She was not the only student struggling and she would not be the last, said Volcheck.
"A lot of them are from domestic violence backgrounds, severe domestic violence backgrounds."
Having worked on homeless patients with a rotating crew of more than 300 volunteer doctors, hygienists, and dental assistants, Volcheck saw an opportunity.
"I thought since we're already doing the training, let's get a formalized program," he said, "that will allow us to bring in homeless men and women and give them a career."
As the clinic grew, Weisbrod earned his dental license back in 2006, Capt. Burrows found his smile and a new job helping others like him.
And nurse Nudi found the strength to stay drug free six-years and become the first graduate of the new CASS Dental Clinic in downtown Phoenix.