A man in a red tracksuit and white skull cap walks past a group of NYU College of Dentistry students tabling off of West 15th Street and asks who they are. He laughs, and says he’ll come back later, seemingly blowing them off.
Half an hour later, he’s sitting in a chair by the NYU table for a dental checkup. He’s been smoking for three decades and has gum disease, he explains to Dentistry graduate student Ali Allan. After checking if the patient has insurance, Allan hands him a toothbrush, toothpaste and an NYU Dentistry coupon worth $200.
“People don’t always understand that you need to take care of your mouth and your oral health to live a healthy life,” said College of Dentistry graduate student Amera Al-Faleh, who was also examining patients. “Imagine someone without any teeth. How can they eat? It affects your mental health, your physical health, everything.”
On Feb. 11, Allan, Al-Faleh, four other dentistry students and a faculty member set up their dental checkup service at Xavier High School, which turns into a soup kitchen on Sundays. Many of the soup kitchen visitors also took advantage of the free checkup. Despite the pouring rain outside, several dozen men and women sat down with the dental students and received coupons.
This event does not stand alone.
The College of Dentistry held 140 outreach events like this one in 2017, extending to 9,040 individual patients, according to data from an internal annual report acquired by WSN. These include senior centers, schools, LGBT centers, embassies and more.
College of Dentistry students help expand the outreach program to new locations, according to Cheryline Pezzullo. Pezzullo was the faculty member at the Xavier event, as well as a College of Dentistry graduate in 2015.
“Students always come; it’s great learning experience for them,” Pezzullo said. “It’s great for them to not only practice the skills they’re learning in school, but to get that one-on-one time with patients and one-on-one time with faculty. It’s great for them to get that kind of fulfillment and remember why we wanted to be dentists and health care providers in the first place.”
Pezzullo attends outreaches up to five days a week. The college had three separate events at Xavier in 2017, according to the annual report. At the first Xavier outreach of 2018, the day starts slowly. Attendees are more likely to go get food from the soup kitchen first.
To remedy this, Pezzullo tells the students that they have five more minutes until they have to go around to tables, asking people to come get their teeth checked. She doesn’t want the event to fall short of expectations.
“We need to make students understand the magnitude of how many different varieties of people we can help,” said Mark Wolff, senior associate dean for Development at the College of Dentistry. “So many of us came into the profession thinking that we were going to fix teeth on the upper-middle-class or the insured or something. There are so many different circumstances in every socioeconomic level, and our goal is to get every one of our students to recognize that.”
A major focus of the outreach program is preventive care, according to Wolff. The College of Dentistry will return to a location multiple times to repeat examinations and education around oral health.
To do so, the College of Dentistry has a van that they drive to schools almost daily. There are also international programs in Nicaragua, Granada and other places.
But in New York City, you don’t have to travel far to find people in need of oral health care. Xavier is on 15th Street and Sixth Avenue.
“A number of students, as a result of this commitment to community, wind up going, ‘you know, maybe I’ll go into community dentistry, maybe I’ll work as a public health dentist,’” Wolff said. “To me, that’s incredible.”
Patients at Xavier experience a mix of amusement, seriousness and embarrassment when they sit down by the NYU Dentistry banner, often unsure what to expect. But more often than not, they are satisfied when they get up.
The patient that Allan helped seemed to be satisfied, as he referred one of his friends to come over to the table and get her own teeth checked.
“That’s why we do what we do,” Pezzullo said. “To form those lasting relationships with patients and make a difference.”
Email Samuel Klein at [email protected]