Many oral-health illnesses such as tooth decay and gum disease are considered 100% preventable.
So, why do so many children and adults across South Dakota continue to suffer severe dental problems?
The answer is two-part, and both affect some of the students at St. Joseph’s Indian School and their families.
A lack of access to proper dental care in South Dakota is driven both by geography and poverty. With a relatively small state population spread out across a large area, many South Dakota residents do not have easy access to a dentist. A high level of poverty also inhibits the ability to obtain proper dental care.
According to a report by Keloland News, poor dental health is a significant and vexing issue on the state’s Native American reservations, where limited access to dental care and poverty are intensified. Intensified to the degree that there are even some children in these communities who suffer severe decay and almost complete tooth loss before they are old enough for school.
The same news report said populations on and around the reservations have difficulty obtaining dental care due to a shortage of providers, unemployment, inability to pay, a lack of public or private insurance, transportation challenges and sometimes a multi-generational inability to understand the importance of dental care.
Most of St. Joseph’s students were born and raised in a reservation community. Meaning, some students arriving in the first grade, second grade, third grade, etc., have never been to the dentist before enrolling at our school, or it has been several years since their last dental visit.
But once they get here, providing dental care is a high priority for our Health Center staff. Students are driven to and from appointments. If a family does not have insurance, St. Joseph’s donor support helps fulfill payment. Houseparents teach students about dental hygiene and they make sure students brush their teeth every morning and evening to create good dental habits.
You could say any and all measures are taken to support students to have the most positive future possible when it comes to dental health.
“St. Joseph’s makes sure every student has a dental exam and cleaning every year, and assists in completing any necessary dental work a student may need,” said Nancy, RN at St. Joseph’s. “Around 200 students go for regular and specialty dental appointments, while the remainder are taken by their parents.”
Most of the issues students face can be fixed with spacers and caps, said Nancy. Spacers are basically small circular rubber bands that help create small spaces between teeth when they are too close together. Caps are used for primary (baby) teeth. They are cemented coverings that help restore the tooth to its original shape and function.
There are students, on occasion, who need extensive dental work.
“Several years ago, three children went to surgery to complete all their dental work at once, since there was so much to be done,” said Nancy. “These students were referred to a pediatric dentist in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the extensive work.”
Although going to the dentist can make some students feel a little fearful at first, usually after visiting the dentist once or twice, they are no longer afraid.
“By regular checkups, we can prevent further dental problems,” said Nancy.
Philámayaye — thank you — for helping provide quality care to Native American boys and girls at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Because of you, they really have something to smile about.