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Open hearts will open doors to dental care

A Times Editorial
Published December 6, 2007


Poor or homeless people often suffer terribly from dental problems because they can't afford expensive dental care. Anyone who has ever had a bad toothache knows the agony these folks endure. Over time, untreated dental problems can damage a person's health and also cause embarrassment about missing or decayed teeth.

Three Tampa Bay area dentists with hearts of gold have taken it upon themselves to reduce their suffering.

Dr. Robert Ettleman, who lives in Tampa but had a dental practice in Dunedin for many years, has his own problems. He has Parkinson's disease and went into early retirement several years ago. Still, he was looking for a way to help low-income adults who lack affordable dental care. He came up with the idea of forming a network of dentists who would donate their services.

Dr. Larry Lieberman, who practices in Palm Harbor, and Dr. Harvey Kerstein, a Clearwater dentist, joined Ettleman in founding Gulf Coast Dental Outreach. The nonprofit program is up and running in North Pinellas County, with more than a dozen dentists on board.

Dental services are provided on Fridays to adults at or near the poverty line. Patients are referred to the program by county health departments and social service agencies.

The services are not free to patients, but most procedures cost only $15. While the dentists are working pro bono, and some area dental students have volunteered their time to get experience, the program's dental hygienists and technicians are paid with money from patient fees and donations.

Already, the program has seen some patients who have never had even basic dental care such as cleaning and X-rays. Ettleman's hope is to broaden the program beyond general dentistry to provide more complicated procedures by volunteer dental specialists.

The dentists involved in Gulf Coast Dental Outreach are busy professionals who did not have to take on this extra burden. That they volunteered is evidence of their humanity.

The poor and afflicted find many doors closed to them in today's economy. Ettleman, Lieberman, Kerstein and the program's other volunteers have provided the blessing of an open door.

[Last modified December 5, 2007, 20:39:22]

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