Dr. Donald Novakovic, assisted by dental technician Marysol Zeidler, provides care for a patient at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic, Milwaukee. The clinic serves those who are unable to afford dental care. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

MILWAUKEE — When Felecia Almuhairi lost her job at First Weber Realtors, she knew getting another job in the struggling economy would be hard, but not impossible. That was before she suffered from painful headaches, experienced bouts of interrupted sleep and had to deal with the death of her mother due to a brain aneurysm. During all that, caring for her teeth was the last thing on her mind.

“I was self-employed for 15 years, and I went to work one day and they said, ‘We’re closing,’ without notice. Everyone was fired really, just terminated from real estate, because the real estate was so bad. With that income I went from point A all the way to point Z, making nothing,” she said.

Almuhairi got another job in the security industry, but was unable to obtain insurance because of the high premiums that accompanied it.

“Dental was far from what I was trying to get, because I would have had no income to survive,” she said. Almuhairi’s pastor at All God’s Children Church, referred her to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic after she complained of pain in her mouth, stemming from an abscess and inflammation in her gums that had been bothering her since August 2009.

“Health care, they say, is for the people, but what people?” she asked.

New clinic provides dental care

This year marks the beginning of the new St. Elizabeth Ann Seton dental clinic, a collaborative program sponsored by Columbia St. Mary’s to provide dental care to impoverished people without access to care. According to Bill Solberg, director of community services at Columbia St. Mary’s, it is a mission desperately needed in Milwaukee.

“If you have a heart attack or a broken leg, you can go to an emergency department and they’ll take care of you regardless of your insurance,” Solberg explained. “But if you go to an emergency department, there really aren’t dentists on call, or there’s no dental care available. People would oftentimes be given prescriptions for pain medication or antibiotics because sometimes there are infections, and then they were told to go and find a dentist.” It was easier said than done, according to Solberg.

Successor to Madre Angela Clinic

Sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, Columbia St. Mary’s sponsors St. Ben’s Clinic for the Homeless in Milwaukee. In 1999, St. Ben’s won an award from the Daughters of Charity called the Vincentian Partnership and Ministry Award.

“St. Ben’s won that year, and associated with the award was a $50,000 grant, so we asked the people at St. Ben’s clinic, ‘What should we do with $50,000?’” Solberg explained. Dentistry, it turned out, was the answer to a long awaited prayer.

They rebuilt what once was a non-profit dental clinic in the basement of the Madre Angela Clinic, 1309 S. Chavez Drive, that had been donated by St. Francis Hospital. In addition, Marquette University and St. Luke’s Hospital, parted with some of their dental residents for the cause, and the Greater Milwaukee Dental Association volunteered more than 600 of their dental members.

In “a perfect storm of good will” the Madre Angela Dental Clinic opened in February 2000.

The facility was prone to leaky roofs, had limited handicap access, and only had six dental chairs. During the nearly 10 years at that location, thousands of people were assisted. Even so, staff and administration knew they could do better.

“It was a site that we kind of grew out of,” Solberg said about the clinic space. “We have six dental chairs there that we could use with dentists, and sometimes we had volunteers that we had to ask to come back at another time because we didn’t have enough chairs.”

Solution to limited space

In 2008, Daughter of Charity Sr. Mary Elizabeth Cullen came up with the solution to their limited space.

“The service was wonderful but the actual facility was in the basement and small, and it rained sometimes, it leaked, and when you had water you couldn’t use the chairs,” she explained. Soon after Sr. Mary Elizabeth came on board, they began to look for ways to improve the situation.

“We were able to get $400,000 from the Mission and Ministry Foundation,” Solberg said. “If left to my own devices I would have said, ‘Could we get $50,000?’ or something like that, but Sister said ‘No!’” He laughed. “It was a very generous donation, and it was really one to make a significant impact. If we didn’t have that as a starting point, we wouldn’t be here.”

In addition to the money donated by the Daughters of Charity, the state provided $422,000 from its Oral Health Access Program. In total, nearly $900,000 was raised for the relocation of a new clinic.

New clinic, new name

Because of the new location, staff and administration decided the clinic name should be changed to honor the first American saint, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Before starting the religious order, Seton was a wife and mother of five children, and that fits in with the purpose of the clinic — to serve children, Solberg explained.

Today, the new clinic is housed in a 5,000-square-foot building located at 1730 S. 13th St., with 11 dental chairs, state-of-the-art dental equipment including digital radiology, which makes dental X-rays available immediately, and new dental practice management software that organizes appointments and patient records for straightforward access, something many dental offices don’t have, according to Sr. Mary Elizabeth.

“What used to take 15 minutes is now one minute, and the patient doesn’t have to go anywhere,” Solberg said about the digital X-rays. “We think it’s really going to help us be more efficient and thereby serve more people.”

A back room dubbed “the quiet room” has been added to the clinic, as some young patients are anxious and in need of a calm space in which to be examined.

‘Smart Smiles’ is portable program

In addition to services offered within the clinic, “Smart Smiles,” a portable oral health program, travels to various Milwaukee public schools and provides dental cleaning, fluoride treatment and screenings to children.

According to Solberg, there are 15 volunteer dentists who offer their services. Time spent at the clinic is beneficial for patients and volunteers, he explained.

“The dentists who have been here as volunteers will talk about how it’s been a significant mission of theirs to serve others, and this is an easy way to do it. It’s a place that’s got all the equipment and instruments,” he said.

Clinic manager Kasey Bruch-Nenn has her hands in nearly all aspects of the facility. According to her, 10 to 15 people come each morning for urgent care dental services, but scheduled appointments are also available for those able to plan.

Tooth fillings, partials, dentures, extractions and other dental work are available for those seeking treatment at the clinic, although more services will be offered with more volunteers.

More dentists needed

“The Greater Milwaukee Dental Association will have meetings, and I will go to those meetings and will network,” she explained as to how she goes about adding more dentists to their team. “I still try to figure out ways (where) we can just do the best that we can.”

“We’ve been able to hold to the fact that we generally consider everyone who comes here with urgent care,” Solberg said. Because of the high cost of restorative care, people generally come for extractions. The clinic hopes to change that.

“Our problem has been that we put so much of our resources into urgent care – getting people out of pain and treating them humanely – on occasion we’ve had hundreds of people on a waiting list for restorative care.” While United Way of America sponsors the restorative care of nearly 100 people a year, hundreds more are left without help. Solberg and others hope to begin a sponsorship program targeted to business, charities and parishes, to help others get the dental help they need.

“Some of the stories are remarkable, of how people have been able to work,” said Solberg of those who had been sponsored. “Even those who have worked had to take off because of the pain and the infection, and now they can go back to work full-time.”

“One of the lines we’ve had from the beginning, kind of our tag line, is ‘dental care that changes lives,’” Solberg added. “We’re working with people who’ve been so neglected and so without care, that often times it really changes their lives.”