Dentist Office On Wheels: Bringing Brighter Smiles To The Wind River Reservation

Dec 21, 2018

Credit Holly Daverin

Kids from rural communities still have a hard time getting to see the dentist. But that's especially on the Wind River Reservation. Lack of reliable transportation and long distances into town can make it hard to get to town for a checkup. 

Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner got a tour of what could be a remedy to the situation: a dentist office on wheels.

The 2013 Winnebago is parked at an RV park getting more equipment to help outfit it as a mobile dentist unit. The mobile home is large and white with pictures of smiling children on the sides.

Grant Christenson supervises the dental clinic for Wind River Family and Community Health.

"This is a panoramic X-Ray machine here for doing X-Rays," said Christenson, gesturing towards a machine tucked in next to the passenger seat. "Well, hopefully no passenger is sitting there."

The idea is to drive to tribal schools and community centers to help provide preemptive care for children on the reservation. This is critical because the reservation does not have fluoride in the drinking water due to lack of a tax base and poverty.

Christenson said challenges are different on the reservation.

"We have a lot of need on this reservation. Indian children nationwide, but particularly on this reservation, have really bad teeth. It impacts their lives in many ways," said Christenson.

If kids don't get checkups and cleanings early on in life, dental issues can follow them the rest of their lives.

He also said, "You know, children miss more school because of tooth problems than from any other single factor."

For as long as anyone can remember the federal government ran the health clinics. But there was only one dentist and he was not there every day of the week. Three years ago, the Arapaho tribe took control over the Indian Health Services clinic.

But getting the tribal clinic up and running was bumpy.

The Wind River Health Center started with one dentist and many problems including lack of funding.

Richard Brannan ran the federal clinic for years. That's why the Northern Arapaho Business Council asked him to become CEO of the Wind River Health Center.

"The dental program when we first inherited it from the Indian Health Service it was mainly a fill and pull program," Brannan said. "Either we fill your teeth or pull them."

Under his leadership, the clinic has grown. The center has hired two pediatric dentists, a general dentist, and an orthodontist. It went from a $3.3 million facility to a projected $25 million operation in 2018.

The clinic also provides rides to people unable to find a lift to their appointments.

In the case of the mobile dental clinic, the dream is to bring preemptive care to kids.

Brannan said, "Unfortunately, healthcare is all about money. The mobile dental clinic has been a dream for many many years. Our belief is if we get to the problem while [they] are young they can have better lives as they grow older."

Working on teeth early in childhood is more cost-effective and less painful in the long run.

Dental Hygienist Holly Daverin works at the Arapaho clinic. Daverin said she could travel in the Winnebago for checkups with the newly hired orthodontist.

"I could use it for sealants and fluoride. I could potentially use it for cleanings," said Daverin.

CEO Richard Brannan said he is excited about the many opportunities ahead for tribal healthcare because when the feds the clinic he felt restricted.

"My hands were always tied. Any innovative thing I wanted to do I was told no," said Brannan.

Now he has a lot more freedom to try things like the mobile dentist. But Brannan said there's one thing the Northern Arapaho Business Council told him he can't do.

"The number one thing they told me was that failure was not an option."

The mobile dentist will be rolling out to a parking lot near you January of 2019.

Brannan said, "We believe everyone should have a beautiful smile."