Dental van provides critical services to Islanders month after month

Dr. Cliff Eckman and Denise Folk give a patient fillings last week. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Dr. Cliff Eckman and Denise Folk give a patient fillings last week.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

When Heather Robinson worked as a dental assistant on Vashon, she was shocked by the number of patients she saw with rotting and broken teeth. Saddened by the knowledge that these patients, as well as others on the Island, go years without visiting a dentist, Robinson set out to bring affordable dental care to Vashon.

Thanks to her efforts, over the past year many Islanders have been able to receive the dental care they so desperately need — all for free.

Last week, a dental van from Medical Teams International (MTI), a Christian global health organization, pulled up outside Vashon Presbyterian Church for its 12th monthly visit to the Island.

More of a bus than a van, the 38-foot motor home is essentially a dental clinic on wheels. To step inside the van feels like walking into an actual dentist’s office, complete with two dental chairs, X-ray machines, a waiting area and a small lab.

At this traveling clinic, one MTI employee and a handful of Vashon volunteers work once a month to provide low-income Islanders with everything from exams and cleanings to fillings and extractions.

Demand for the dental van’s services was immediately high. Robinson, who now coordinates appointments and volunteers at the clinic, said 75 Islanders showed interest in the free dental work when the MTI van first stopped on Vashon a year ago.

Now, the volunteers usually serve 10 to 12 patients per visit. Still, they only have time to see half of the people who normally request appointments, Robinson said.

“I keep a wait list in case anyone cancels or doesn’t show. … It’s pretty long,” she said.

According to the clinic’s records, 45 percent of the clinic’s patients, who must be below the federal poverty line and not have dental insurance, haven’t seen a dentist in four or more years.

“Right now it’s been really bad,” Robinson said. “I can feel Vashon not doing so well.”

Denise Folk, who manages the clinic and takes the van all over South King County, says there is a high need for free dental care everywhere and believes the economy is to blame.

“The unemployment rate is outrageous, and many employees offer health insurance but not dental,” she said.

Dr. Cliff Eckman, a retired Vashon dentist who volunteers his time at the clinic each month, is pleased that word seems to getting out on Vashon about the free clinic. He sees more and more interest in it each month.

“Today we had more people come to the van asking, that weren’t on the schedule, than ever,” he said as he drilled a patient’s tooth last week.

Eckman, who practiced for 14 years on Vashon, said he was looking for a way to volunteer his time after recently retiring when Robinson approached him about the MTI dental van.

“I was going to do some volunteer work off-Island, but I realized there was just as much need here, particularly right now with people losing jobs and insurance,” he said.

Islander Andy Jovanovich, who visited the clinic for the second time last week, said he is extremely grateful for the service it provides.

Jovanovich, who is currently employed but doesn’t have dental insurance, has had much-needed dental work completed by the clinic’s volunteers.

Even when Jovanovich had dental insurance two years ago, it didn’t cover all the work he needed done, and he couldn’t afford to make up the difference. Without the clinic, he said, his problems would have continued to go untreated.

“There’s no dental insurance in the country that will give you enough to cover (what I needed),” he said.

Folk said many patients who come to the clinic suffer from conditions that should have been addressed long ago. The most common problems the clinic sees are extensive tooth rot and broken teeth as a result of rot.

“A lot of patients need a lot of extensive work,” she said.

It is estimated that the clinic provides about $5,000 worth of free dental work at each stop. However, with demand for its services growing, funding for the clinic seems to be slipping away.

It costs $900 to bring the van to the Island one time. Granny’s Attic sponsored four visits, and the Vashon Interfaith Council on Homelessness has made contributions as well. However, the Island has got to find more donors, Folk said.

“We’ll still come even if they don’t cover it, but it’s better if the site can come up with it. … Donations are needed,” she said.

Eckman has even volunteered his time at other Seattle-area dental clinics in exchange for MTI van visits to the Island.

“I enjoy dentistry,” he said. “It’s a way for me to give back to the community and do something I enjoy.”

While Eckman and Robinson are grateful that MTI has been willing to work with them when they couldn’t come up with the funds, they, too, understand the need for the Island to cover its visits.

The two are currently soliciting Vashon businesses, nonprofits and individuals to donate to the cause.

Folk has begun asking Vashon patients to provide $5 when they visit, simply to cover the cost of bringing the van over from Tacoma.

“It costs $76 to bring this thing on the ferry,” she said, a tone of shock in her voice.

As Jovanovich left the van with a smile on his face last week, he passed a wad of bills to Dr. Eckman, giving the clinic well over $5.

“(I appreciate) the generosity of people like this that are willing to donate their time for people who wouldn’t get the help otherwise,” he said.

Donations to help bring the dental van to Vashon can be sent to Medical Teams International, c/o Nancy Utt, 9680 153rd Ave. N.E., Redmond, WA, 98052.

Indicate on the check that the donation is for the Vashon dental van. For more information, contact Heather Robinson at 310-5238.

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