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School dental clinic running

Sunday, April 1, 2007
By John Dignam
(c) Telegram & Gazette

WEBSTER – The school oral health program here has provided children with screenings, cleanings, X-rays and sealants the past three years, but hasn’t been able to fix the main problem: their cavities.

Until now.

The Judith Ruskin Oral Health Clinic was dedicated Friday at Webster Middle School in honor of the deceased school principal who sought help for the “oral health crisis” affecting her pupils.

It is the first school-based dental clinic in Central Massachusetts and one of only a few in the state, according to Janice B. Yost, president of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.

“This is a huge and significant event for the Webster area,” Ms. Yost said in an interview last week. “I think it’s going to make a significant difference to the oral health of children in the Webster schools.

“It’s wonderful that the schools have recognized the importance of oral health to children’s ability to succeed in school and have been supportive of taking the dentists to the children in the schools,” she added. “That’s where the children are.”

The health foundation gave the school oral health program here a start as part of the $86,800 five-year grant in 2002. Ms. Yost, who has described tooth decay as the most common chronic condition of childhood, said half the foundation’s grants have been made to “improve oral health.”

The United Way of Webster and Dudley made the permanent clinic a reality when it funded a $28,477 grant to the Family Health Center of Worcester for equipment.

“We can do the preventative work, but if we’re not filling cavities, we’re ultimately not fixing the problem that Judy came to me to fix,” said Janet Scheffler, United Way executive director.

Dr. Susan Fiorillo, FHC dental program director, said the center began sending letters last week to students referred for treatment and that restorative work will begin as soon as parents respond and appointments can be scheduled.

Dr. Maura Sanders, one fo the FHC dentists who has worked in the oral health program here, said it has been extremely frustrating for those involved to identify problems with the children’s teeth, but then not be able to correct them.

She said many of the children have their permanent teeth, and many have cavities. “Some of the teeth are just shells. It’s terrible to see a 10-year-old with a huge cavity,” he said.

The problem has been that while many students qualify for MassHealth insurance program that would pay for treatment, they haven’t been able to get the Family Health Center in Worcester, which provides the treatment.

“Transportation is a huge issue,” Mrs. Scheffler said.

Dr. Fiorillo said 70 percent of the Webster children screened were referred for treatment and that 50 percent of those screened had advanced caries, indicating they were not seen regularly by a dentist and had no “dental home.”

“Now they have a dental home,” she said of the clinic.

The oral health program began six years ago when the late Mrs. Ruskin, who was principal of Park Avenue Elementary School, approached Mrs. Scheffler about children’s dental problems.

“Judy Ruskin said she had an oral health crisis in her school,” Mrs. Scheffler said.

“She said, ‘I have kids with cavities, kids with abscesses, kids with headaches, kids with poor nutrition because it hurts to eat a carrot, an apple. Kids can’t pay attention in class because they have pain in their mouth,” Mrs. Scheffler remembered Mrs. Ruskin telling her.

Mrs. Scheffler, with Terri Stone and Rosalie Pavlis of the Webster Community for Success coalition, then wrote a grant request for a dental program at the school, which the foundation funded through the Southern Worcester County Oral Health Coalition.

Mrs. Ruskin died of cancer in September 2002, a little more than a month before the grant was announced.

The Family Health Center began screening children on the stage in the school cafeteria in May 2004. Sixty children participated the first year. There were 245 participants this year.

Nancy Abysalh, nurse at the elementary school, said she regularly sees children with toothaches, abscesses and faces swollen from dental problems.

“A little Ambersol (a dental analgesic) isn’t going to do much,” she said.

The oral health program includes children from kindergarten through Grade 6, and Mrs. Scheffler said eventually it could include junior and senior high school students.

Webster Middle School Principal Jason D. Phelps said he believes the program has already benefited students because those coming from the elementary school (kindergarten to Grade 2) to the middle school (Grades 3-6) have fewer dental problems.

“It just made sense to have a permanent place for the clinic,” Mr. Phelps said.

About three dozen people, many of them family, friends and co-workers of Mrs. Ruskin, attended Friday’s dedication of the oral health clinic, which is located in what was a science prep lab.

Before the ceremony, former School Supt. Vincent F. Simone praised Mrs. Ruskin as “hard-driving, with a heart.”

State Rep. Paul Kujawski, D-Webster, a former School Committee member, praised the clinic as “the legacy of a truly great educator.”

“She recognized the need,” Mrs. Abysalh said of her friend, Mrs. Ruskin. “She was instrumental in starting this whole thing, and I think she would be really happy that the kids are getting the care.”