When Dr. Elenora Woods heard about a 12-year-old Maryland boy dying because his mother couldn't afford dental care for him and a tooth infection spread to his brain, she wanted to make sure that didn't happen in Tennessee.
"You think about stuff like that happening in Third World countries, but not in this country," said Dr. Woods, of Chattanooga.
In February 2007, Diamonte Driver of Maryland's Prince George County died after two operations and more than six weeks of hospital care failed to remove all the bacteria that moved from an abscessed tooth to his brain.
"That inspired me to want to create a foundation geared toward helping those who are vulnerable," Dr. Woods said.
The 43-year-old mother of three is the founder of Dental Angels, a network of dentists who agree to perform emergency dental surgeries for adults and children who cannot afford the care.
So far, the network includes about 100 dentists throughout the state, including 11 local dentists. But the goal is to get every dentist in Tennessee participating, Dr. Woods said.
The purpose of the Dental Angel Care Fund is to provide money to offset the expenses of dentists who agree to perform the surgeries. Dr. Woods said she does not take any money from the fund to avoid any conflict of interest because she is the founder.
Dr. Woods, a former Ronald McDonald dental care advisory board member, said the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile dental service started in Chattanooga about 2000 after a 12-year-old local boy was paralyzed when a dental infection was left unattended.
A woman died this year in Tennessee after she pulled her own infected tooth when she could find no one else to do it, Dr. Woods said.
"A lot of people like to do missionary work overseas, but we have so many unmet medical needs in this country that I'd like to start my work here," she said.
DISCOUNT DENTAL SERVICE
* The Roy Mercy Dental Clinic, operated through Inner City Ministries, offers dental service on a sliding scale on Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon. Patients need to be interviewed before appointments are given. The clinic is at 1800 Roanoke Ave. Call 698-3178 for more information.
* Dodson Avenue Community Health Department, at 1200 Dodson Ave., offers dental service on a sliding scale. Walk-in patients are seen only from 7-7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. Appointments are encouraged. The clinic operates from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays. Patients are asked to bring proof of income, resident and picture identification. Call 778-2856 for more information.
Dentists or people who need dental care may join or apply to receive care through the Dental Angels network by going to http://dentalangelfund.com.
Katie Bonds, a 58-year-old public housing resident, said she has firsthand experience of the need for dental care for low-income adults.
"They have care for the young people, but not for the elderly. Some of us don't even go to the dentist because it costs an arm and a leg," she said.
Dr. Woods said the dental surgeries are to prevent death or the aggravation of life-threatening illness because of dental infection.
"We're not talking about crowns, bridges and dentures," she said. "We're taking about keeping people from dying. When people have other illnesses, like diabetes, dental infections can make it worse."
When a dental infection is left untreated, it can spread to the bloodstream and into the brain and cause blindness, paralysis or death, Dr. Woods said.
Dental Angels will offer free care to patients who are living at 185 percent below the poverty level, Dr. Woods said. A single person can make no more than $19,240 a year, while a family of four can make no more than $39,220.
And because the system is made of a network of dentists, patients will be sent to a dentist's office near them instead of going to a clinic, she said.
Dr. Fred Heros, of Memphis, a former president of the Tennessee Dental Association who participates in the program, commended Dr. Woods for her efforts.
"She has taken on what our state government has not done for adults," he said. "The government says the health department will treat adults, but they can't treat all of them. And some end up in the emergency room."