The crew of the inaugural mobile dental unit run at the clinic’s ribbon cutting: Left to right — “Trailblazers” Machelle F. Thompson, RDH, MSPH; Alexis Bryant (D-3), Nicolet Smith (D-3), Jasmine Copeland (D-4), Erica Robinson (D-3), April Savoy (D-3) and Walter R. Owens, D.D.S., FACD, FICD.

NASHVILLE, TN — The inaugural run of Meharry Medical College’s mobile dentistry clinic started early. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, February 7, 2018, the clinic, a tractor-trailer with four treatment bays for providing dental services equipped with the ability to operate independently where necessary, set out from Nashville for Bartlett, Tennessee, northeast of Memphis. The team was bound for Youth Villages, a facility, according to their website, “serving emotionally and behaviorally troubled young people.” 

“We provide the dental services that they have to have” to meet government requirements, said associate dean, Walter R. Owens, D.D.S., FACD, FICD who led the team along with Machelle F. Thompson, RDH, MSPH, assistant dean, clinical affairs and director of compliance, and associate professor, dental public health. Dr. Owens said the team provided dental services, screenings, exams, prophies, and X-ray imaging along with an evaluation about future patient needs.

The Meharry School of Dentistry students—Alexis Bryant, Erica Robinson, April Savoy and Nicolet Smith (all third-year, or D-3 students) and Jasmine Copeland (a fourth-year, or D-4 student) lightly referred to themselves as the “Trailblazers,”—the moniker seemed appropriate for the clinic’s first time out. 

Over two days, the “Trailblazers” performed 65 procedures.

“We knew we were going to see patients in that facility,” Ms. Thompson said. “They have approximately 300 residents between the four sites they have.” But, she said, they didn’t really know what to expect.

According to student dentist Savoy, there was some apprehension at first, but they pressed into the project. “It’s just so new…we’re the first group to do it,” she said. “We just have to jump in, we just have to trust what we know, know that we’re trained well.“

According to Dr. Owens, the mission of the mobile dental clinic brackets many demographic groups and areas of need, and the project has a lot of work before it. “We’re gonna probably have as much as we can handle,” he said. “There is a lot of need and there are some special pockets and special communities that have access issues, so we will be providing care for them.”

Ms. Thompson said that the mobile clinic is about public health. “Because I’m a public health person, I think all health is public health,” she said. “To have this great community outreach initiative is really what the community needs across the state

Communities of need include health professional shortage areas—“We’ll be in those communities as well,” Dr. Owens said—and care for seniors across the state “because for the most part they don’t have dental coverage.”

Looking to the busy future of the project, “this mobile clinic is going to be on the road for a great part of the time,” Dr. Owens said. “There’s going to be a need to, probably, increase the mobile fleet.” 

To the student dentist team, not only was the adventure about service, it was about learning. “The very last case, we had a [13-year-old] male come in,” said student dentist Copeland. “It was dark and everyone was tired—I’m sure he was tired—and he came in and sat in our chair and I did an exam and I did his medical history and, you know, worked him up.” When Dr. Owens came over to confirm the exam findings, she said, the student got aggressive—he would only let the student work with him. Eventually, with the collaboration of a counselor and others, they were finally able to treat him. “It took quite a while,” she said. 

“For me,” Copeland said, “I kind of went in thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this’ since I’m a fourth-year and I’ll be graduating soon.” She said she learned much from the case. “I got a lot out of it…It taught me how to handle situations like that.”

According to Ms. Thompson, cases like that one allow the student to call upon all of the information gathered along the way. “Everything comes full-circle with the information that the students get from D-1 all the way to D-4.” 

For student dentist Robinson, the mobile unit represents what makes Meharrians special—what makes Meharry great. “Meharrians are known to take the extra step or to go the extra mile,” she said, “and this mobile unit allows us to literally do that.”

Ms. Thompson said the counselors from that first trip are asking when the clinic—and the students—are coming back. “They really left a mark,” she said.