SEASIDE — Myle Halsen, 5, took her first trip to the dentist Wednesday, but she didn’t have to go very far.

Hugging an orange and white stuffed kitten, Myle walked out the door of Seaside Heights Elementary School and into a dental van. There, John Koski, a fourth-year dental student from Oregon Health and Science University, examined her teeth and took X-rays.

Sponsored by Providence Seaside Hospital and Medical Teams International, the van offers free dental services to North Coast students who have no insurance.

Usually the van travels to the hospital, but this time, through the urging of Providence’s foundation director, Sydney Van Dusen, the vans arrived at the doorsteps of five schools this week.

Students at Astor and Lewis and Clark elementary schools had already been checked by Wednesday; Gearhart and Warrenton elementary schools were due for visits at the end of the week.

“We have two vans here today,” said Elizabeth Bunce, dental van coordinator for the Providence Seaside Hospital Foundation. “We will see 18 kids.”

When the vans went to Providence Seaside, parents often were unable to take time off work to transport their children to and from the hospital, Bunce said.

As a result, not as many children who needed dental care could receive it, she said.

“Our goal is to have the van come to the schools at least twice a year,” she said.

But it costs $1,000 a day – $5,000 a week – to bring the van to the schools. The hospital foundation plans to raise funds to enable it to come to the North Coast regularly.

Last year, 2,600 Oregon students were treated, said Matt Stiller, mobile dental program manager for Medical Teams International.

“With the support of Providence Seaside Foundation, we look forward to making these services more accessible to both children and adults on the Oregon Coast," he said.

Each van is a self-contained dental office, with two stations, a pediatric dentist, a dental technologist and several third- and fourth-year dental students. They see the students from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.

“The afternoons aren’t good for kids,” said Dr. Lee Emery, a pediatric dentist. “They get tired and restless.”

Many services

Although a full range of services isn’t provided in the vans, the dentists fill cavities, pull teeth and perform some repair work.

“This girl is going to get a stainless steel crown,” said Emery, pointing to a young girl in a dental chair. He pulled out a drawer divided into squares, each designated with a code for a particular tooth. Each square was filled with at least seven crowns per tooth.

Students who complain about a tooth hurting are referred to the dental service by the district’s nurse and by teachers who notice that the kids might need dental work.

That need can get in the way of succeeding in school, said Dan Gaffney, Seaside Heights principal.

“If you have a student in pain, it’s hard to concentrate,” Gaffney said. “Or, if there’s something wrong with a tooth, and you’re worried about how you look, that could affect your confidence.”

It took a month of organizing the paperwork, asking for parents’ permission and having them complete the forms required by the dentists before the vans arrived, Gaffney said.

“It has always been a matter of whether the parents could take the time off work to take their kids to the dentist,” Gaffney said. “The kids are here, they have their parents’ permission. We can take the kids out of class for a short period of time, and then they’re back in class. The parents don’t have to worry.”

Longtime project

For 24 years, Emery, an assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at OHSU, has travelled to various locations and treated patients in the van.

“I do this two days a month,” he said. “It’s all volunteer. I take my dental students with me. It teaches them to be altruistic when they get into the community.”

Emery said he volunteers his time because so many children need assistance.

“It makes you feel good,” he said. “If it wasn’t for us, the kids wouldn’t get any treatment.”

He talked about one boy he had just seen whose permanent molar had a deep cavity that involved a nerve.

“That kid is going to sleep well tonight, and he’s going to eat better,” Emery said.

Michelle Nguyen and Cathrine Martell, both third-year dental students, had already assisted with filling, cleanings and fluoride treatments in the first two hours with few complaints from the kids.

“These kids are pretty resilient and cooperative overall,” Nguyen said. “They’re pretty tough kids.

“Maybe they understand we’re there for them; we’re on their team,” she said.

Different strokes

Martell said she noticed a difference between working with adults and with children.

“It’s definitely different,” she said. “You don’t want to make it a traumatic experience so they will never want to go to the dentist again.”

For Myle Halsen, going to the dentist may have been more than she bargained for. She had to have three teeth pulled, but her mother, Sandra Halsen was there to hold her hand and promised that the tooth fairy would visit her.

Myle didn’t like the shots of novocaine that OHSU dental student Koski had to give to her, but he talked her through it.

“When it starts to hurt, you’re going to count to 10 and when you get to 10, it will stop,” he told her.

Kris Handy, the mobile dental clinic van manager and a pediatric dental assistant, also tried to soothe Myle.

“If you didn’t have your teeth pulled, it would hurt so much!” she told the girl. “You were very brave.”