HOWARD – Eric Talbot has avoided smiling in front of other people since he was 15.
He’d duck and dodge photos or hide behind someone when his friends reached for cameras. If he couldn’t avoid the spectacle, he’d stand uncomfortably with his lips pursed. He didn’t want anybody to see his teeth.
“I was always self-conscious about my smile because my teeth were just, well, ugly,” Talbot said. “I want to be able to smile again.”
Talbot has a lot to smile about. Since coming to Green Bay a year ago and struggling with addiction and homelessness, he’s been sober for 120 days, received a voucher for housing and will soon be able to move out of the N.E.W. Community Shelter, where he’s been living for the past 2½ months.
Soon, Talbot will have that chance to smile.
On Friday, Talbot and 12 other residents of the N.E.W. Community Shelter, an emergency shelter in Green Bay serving adult men and women experiencing homelessness, sat in the waiting room of Meadowbrook Smiles Family Dentistry, 2550 Glendale Ave., to receive a series of overdue dental care procedures, from teeth cleanings to full dentures — completely free of charge.
Talbot got his teeth cleaned today and his next visit will be more involved — rotted teeth will be pulled and partial implants will be placed.
“I’ve been CEO for 19 years and this is the coolest thing we’ve ever done,” the shelter’s Terri Refsguard said.
That’s a bold statement, considering Refsguard’s position on going to the dentist is not “cool.” She once turned around in the parking lot and left twice before she ultimately made it into her dentist’s office, despite being in great pain.
Refsguard, it turned out, had a bad childhood experience with a dentist. So did Michelle Klass, 39, a N.E.W. Community Shelter resident, who had a nasty root canal job in her inventory of bad dentist memories. Before she came to Meadowbrook last week, she hadn’t seen a dentist in 20 years. Friday, she got the first of many teeth pulled.
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By her own admission, Klass didn’t take very good care of her teeth. Similar to Talbot, she hasn’t smiled with her teeth showing for over a decade and it’s done a number to her confidence. Klass also suspects it’s kept her from getting jobs. She’d feel eyes fall to her teeth as she spoke during job interviews and wonder, each time she didn’t get a callback, whether the sight of her teeth was partially to blame.
“I can’t hide my teeth while I’m talking,” Klass said. “It’s hard to say if that’s held me back. And you hate to think that way, but you do wonder sometimes.”
Despite all that getting a tooth pulled entails, Klass said her experience with the Meadowbrook team was gentle. They described what they were doing and made sure Klass was fully numb before they did anything else. Up next, she’ll have more broken teeth pulled, get a round of fillings, have a root fixed and get partial dentures.
“This is an unbelievable opportunity for me to be able to get my teeth fixed,” Klass said. “This is a total game-changer.”
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Dental program responds to an overlooked need
Over the course of three months last winter, De Pere High School junior Nolan VanMiller was volunteering at the N.E.W. Community Shelter when he noticed a pattern among the residents. They’d put themselves down or put a hand over their mouth as they smiled. They’d wince in pain as they chewed food in the dining room.
“I saw a need,” Nolan said.
He’s the son of two dentists, Rebecca and Eric VanMiller, so dental care has always been top of mind for Nolan, and it’s his dream to one day walk in his parents’ footsteps as a second-generation dentist.
He started contacting local dentists about a partnership and ultimately talked with a hyperlocal pair of dentists: his parents.
“Eric and I have been doing stuff like donating our time for 20 years,” said Rebecca VanMiller, a dentist at Meadowbrook Smiles Family Dentistry. “Nolan brought this idea to us, it was a good fit and it was good timing.”
Rebecca and Eric VanMiller coordinated with Green Bay-based Patterson Dental, which donated supplies, as well as Dental City and Quality Dental Lab. Being able to offer this service is important for both of them, because they see too many people fall through the cracks of the health care system.
“The thing about dental care is that, especially at the shelter, organizations can provide them with the basic necessities of housing and food and shelter and some basic health care needs, but dentistry is oftentimes lost,” Rebecca VanMiller said. “All these patients have some broken teeth. They’re in pain, infections go undiagnosed and untreated infection can lead to other systemic problems. It’s important to treat it when it’s treatable.”
The last patient Eric VanMiller had from N.E.W. Community Shelter told him the pain in his tooth was so bad, he tried to extract it himself.
“When your teeth are that bad, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t do anything,” Rebecca VanMiller said.
‘Something to be happy about’
Walter Calvert said he last went to a dentist in a jail in Tempe, Arizona, and “that guy wasn’t so gentle.”
But Friday, Calvert had to keep wiping tears from his face as he sat in the Meadowbrook waiting room because he felt how much love was in the room. Nothing about a dentist visit made him nervous or sad — like most people here, he simply could never afford to see one.
He’s retired now and has been living in N.E.W. Community Shelter for three years. He’s carried tooth pain for a long time and will finally be relieved of the burden of a particularly annoying molar.
Rebecca VanMiller said that, beyond pain relief, dental hygiene can ripple into all areas of care, from cardiac health to mental health and self-esteem. It can change the way you project yourself in the world, add confidence that’s been missing for as long as a rotten tooth can stay put.
Klass said she has a job interview Friday afternoon and, while she isn’t ready to smile with all her teeth yet, she’s starting to feel like she’s taking advantage of the opportunities coming her way.
Talbot feels the same way.
“I have something to be happy about and smile about again,” he said.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Central Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org