The pain was unbearable. The headaches were relentless. When Mahogany Jones complained of a toothache to her mother, Kamika, their options for care were limited. The COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted dental care, which meant low- and no-cost services were especially hard to find.

Teresa Funez also bore the burden of seeing her own child in pain while under financial stress.

“Because of the pandemic, there is no work. Dental care is expensive,” Funez said.

Funez ended up not even having to leave her neighborhood, though, because care came to her. She and her son Anthony, who has also had dental problems, were treated by the USC Mobile Dental Clinic.

Through the mobile clinic, the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC has been providing low- or no-cost care to residents in South Los Angeles and on the Eastside for decades. And not even a global pandemic could keep them from giving back.

For some children, the USC Mobile Dental Clinic visits are the only opportunity for them to see a dentist. Without them, they could become very sick. What seems like a mere toothache can have big consequences; one cavity can cascade into a host of other infections and illnesses.

Dental care badly needed in L.A., especially during a pandemic

Dental disease has long been a problem in the Los Angeles area, especially among children who are Latino and Black and whose families have low incomes. A 2012 study by Ostrow School researchers found more than 73% of 1,500 children in low-income parts of L.A. had suffered cavities. And cost of care is a key reason that California parents don’t take their kids to the dentist, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The Ostrow School is a major provider of low-cost or no-cost dental care in Southern California. The school has served over 380,000 patients across L.A. since 2011. This year, the school partnered with the To Help Everyone Health and Wellness Centers, with the support of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, to safely relaunch its clinical services during the pandemic.

Aside of the U.S. military, USC has the largest mobile dental fleet in the country and it was ready to provide care for South L.A. residents. The mobile dental program will be providing dental care throughout February, National Children’s Dental Health Month.

The clinic continues to reach many young patients like Funez’s son Anthony, who previously had no access to dental care.

“We are impacting patients in many ways. These kiddos are learning how to be at the dentist in an environment that is a little less intimidating than a normal dental office,” said Sunny Fereshteh, assistant professor of clinical dentistry and director of the USC mobile clinic program.

“They are working with young dental students and faculty who have the energy and positivity that makes the kids feel a little more comfortable in their chairs.”

Mobile dental clinic helps L.A. kids and USC students alike

For Mahogany Jones, the care she received will mean “less headaches.” And her mother said that the Ostrow School students’ youthful energy made the experience even more pleasant.

“They’ve been trained to handle children,” she said. “They were singing songs from Frozen to keep her excited.” The experience has even helped with the tall task every parent faces: getting a child to brush their teeth regularly. Kamika Jones says her daughter has adopted the habit with some zest, along with a playlist of Disney songs.

Dental visits trigger anxiety for young children and those who’ve rarely been to a dentist. “Many [patients] haven’t had access or the opportunity to see a dentist, some for five to 10 years, even 15 years,” Fereshteh said. “We are hoping to reduce dental anxiety in this community so they will want to come back to the dentist as much as possible.”

The clinic also has another benefit: “It helps dental students who get to learn how to work in the community. When they graduate, they want to provide quality service to these patients.” The services are provided by third- and fourth-year dental students who are supervised by USC dental faculty members with anywhere from two to 30 years of experience.

The return of the services was a welcome sight for many of the patients who visited and happily went through the safety protocols put in place. For Teresa Funez, it gave her joy to visit the dentist and knowing that her child was no longer in pain: “It makes me happy that he is now OK. This helps a lot.”

— Saul Garcia