It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Georgia Perimeter College dental hygiene students are gearing up for a busy afternoon of patients, preparing instruments and reviewing patient charts. They’re working at the Faith in Serving Humanity Clinic—better known as the FISH dental clinic—in Monroe.
Twice a month, four to six second-year dental hygiene students come here, making the hour-long commute to Walton County from GPC’s Dunwoody Campus. The clinic serves those who cannot afford dental care and attracts many patients who have never set foot in a dental clinic, says Cherie Rainwater, chair of the college’s dental hygiene program.
“Students have an opportunity to educate patients about improving oral health and therefore improving systemic health,” says Rainwater.
Poor dental care also can aggravate existing health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
For students Teresa Hartnett and Cecille Jones, both of whom live in Dunwoody, working at the FISH clinic offers a gratifying facet to their dental hygiene education at GPC.
“It’s very rewarding. The people who come here are low income patients. They really express how grateful they are,” says Jones. Says Harnett, “We talk about community involvement, but until you do it, you don’t really appreciate the difference you can make.”
That difference was amplified recently by the Walton County Health Care Foundation, who donated $15,000 to the program. The funds provide salary assistance for a dentist, who can provide anesthesia to patients if needed. The money also helps cover dental supplies for students providing care.
“Our focus is to enhance the health care of Walton County,” said Dr. Henry Wall, Walton County Health Care Foundation chairman. The health care foundation supports governmental and community-wide agencies that provide health-related services to families and individuals with medical needs.
“We look for two things when we give money—helping students who are interested in nursing, dental care or medical school, and where we can help increase the availability of health care,” Wall said. “We have a very large need for a free medical care in this area. This gift helps us do both.”
Providing free dental care for underserved patients is a hallmark of the education of GPC dental hygiene students. In addition to their work in the college’s community clinic on the Dunwoody Campus, students volunteer at clinics across Atlanta as part of their training, including the Good Samaritan Clinic and the Ben Massell Dental Clinic in Atlanta.
“Going to clinics for the underserved populations does not allow the students to spend much time getting to know the patients and building a relationship,” notes Rainwater. “But there is a very different reward for the students here. We feel the gratitude that patients have immediately. Helping others is always more rewarding to the giver than the receiver.”