Dental health improves for families, children |

Dental health improves for families, children

Dylan Silver/Tahoe Daily Tribune

Alexandra Salinas, 18, mixed the off-white putty with a big flat-bladed butter knife. She poured the mixture into a mouth-shaped mold and moved towards fellow South Tahoe High School student Miguel Madrigal, sitting under the fluorescent light in one of the school’s dentist chairs. He opened his mouth and she pressed the plaster-filled tray onto his upper jaw.

“They’re going to learn this next week,” Salinas said, motioning to the students sitting around stations in the high school’s dental assistant class. “It’s pretty funny when they learn because they usually end up gagging everybody.”

Salinas has completed both sections of the high school’s dentist assistant program and is working towards becoming a dental surgeon. Striving towards her goal, The high school senior, along with her dental classmates, have done presentations at Bijou School, helped out in the community and even taken dental hygiene tips home to their families.

The students’ effort paired with grant-funded dental programs aimed at families and children are on track to make South Lake Tahoe’s smile a whole lot brighter.

“In the last few years we’ve had tremendous change,” said Margaret McKean, a 29-year Lake Tahoe School District nurse, who’s helped implement several community dental health clinics. “Dental health isn’t just about teeth, it’s about chronic health issues and the problems in life they can cause.”

In 2009, Vickie Cowley, El Dorado County health education coordinator, formed a partnership with school nurses to bring a mobile dental van managed by professional dentists to the school district. McKean lined up 55 children whose teeth were in most need of care.

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Some of the children were such severe cases they had to be shuttled to the van as it moved from school to school, so they could be seen two or three times, McKean remembered. Getting past the worst cases, was a big step, McKean added.

“Now we feel like there’s progress and we’re not just working on the bad stuff. We can start to look at prevention,” she said.

Other than providing immediate care, the van also serves another purpose.

“Our other big goal with the dental van is to get kids to not be afraid of going to the dentist (and) to work with parents to understand that dental care is essential,” McKean said.

The dental van will continue visits to South Lake Tahoe in November.

Connie Hunt has been teaching the dental assistant program at the high school for 8 years and more advanced dental programs at Lake Tahoe Community College since 1997. Students who pass both the high school classes can skip the first college dentistry class. At least several students will take advantage of the opportunity to jump-start their career after graduation.

“I’m going to be a dental assistant,” said Mecha Cook, 18, as she studied a toffelemire, a device used during fillings. “I’m going to take (Hunt’s) college classes because I really enjoy it.”

Jacqui Searight, 16, said she’d like to become a dentist in the National Guard. Searight has helped with dental clinics at Barton Health Center and Bijou Elementary School.

“I think it’s important to teach children about hygiene and how to take care of their bodies,” she said. “And it makes me feel good.”

Part of the curriculum of the classes is to give a presentation at one of the area’s elementary schools. In the past, students filled 2,000 gift bags with tooth brushes, floss and a letter to parents about the importance of dental hygiene. They’ve performed and produced coloring books about cleaning teeth. And some have even donned the school’s giant tooth costume.

Salinas, about to start her second summer assisting a dental surgeon, has taken what she’s learned home to her little brother and cousins. She likes working with the children and believes improving their dental health can improve their lives.

“I believe that if you change the way someone smiles, you can boost their confidence,” she said.