Karla Hernandez, 12, went to school on Friday, exhausted.

The sixth-grader at John Muir Middle School hadn’t slept at all the night before, kept awake by an agonizing toothache that even aspirin wouldn’t relieve.

Karla needed a root canal — and fast. But her mother, Paulina Maravel Hernandez, 37, a home health aide, simply couldn’t afford the costly treatment.

Relief came on Oct. 19, when three USC mobile dental clinics rolled up to John Muir Middle School in South Los Angeles to provide free treatment to underserved children in area schools.

The community service initiative represents a partnership between the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, the California Resources Corporation (CRC), the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to provide dental treatment to hundreds of low-income children during the next two years.


Karla’s not alone

Karla’s story is not unique. It is estimated that dental problems cause 16,000 absences a year at LAUSD schools — not only impacting children’s academic achievement but also their parents ability to maintain a job or receive promotions, according to a 2012 Ostrow study.

“No child should ever have to go without dental care,” Ostrow Dean Avishai Sadan, DMD, said. “Providing treatment to underserved populations is one of the most powerful ways that dental professionals can help bridge the gap to dental healthcare, which is why community outreach has long been one of the basic tenets of an Ostrow dental education.”

In mid-September, Ostrow faculty and students conducted 200 pre-screenings at John Muir Middle School and found that 10 to 20 percent of the student population had never seen a dentist before and needed extreme dental treatment. Of those who had seen a dentist, they had received little to no preventive dental care, which is vital for continued oral health.

“A child should not have to go to school in pain and be expected to reach their full educational potential,” said Sanaz Fereshteh, DDS, USC Mobile Clinic director. “I have spent the past 10 years working on children in dire need for dental care and it has led me to this incredible mobile clinic that brings the solution to the child.”


Help is on the way

On Oct. 20, Ostrow kicked off its two-year engagement with a special community event and VIP tours of USC’s three mobile clinics, including the Hutto Patterson Mobile Dental Clinic, a nation’s second-largest mobile dental clinic.

VIPs included L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, CRC’s President and Chief Executive Officer Todd A. Stevens, LAUSD Boardmember George J. McKenna and Ostrow Dean Sadan.

Throughout the day, Ostrow faculty and students provided dental treatment to underserved children and their family members.

Karla’s root canal began right away on Friday and continued during Saturday’s event. But already, she was in better spirits, having been relieved of her pain and able to get a good night sleep.

“I’m so appreciative and thankful for this program,” Marevel Hernandez said. “We couldn’t have gotten the treatment done otherwise because we didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

This initiative is the second time that Ostrow and the CRC have forged such a partnership. Last year, nearly 130 low-income elementary school students in Kern County received free dental care as part of another three-year engagement taking place in the Taft School District through 2020.

With an array of mobile dental clinics, stationary clinics and community partnerships, Ostrow has long committed itself to removing obstacles to oral health for Southern California’s underserved populations. Last year, the Community Oral Health Programs provided more than $1 million of free services to low-income residents from Central California to the Mexican border.

— John Hobbs