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Program gives back smiles, self-esteem

For women like Carmen Bradley, who wasn't able to seek a dentist's help before, the new program is a way to heal the scars left by domestic abuse.

By RYAN DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


Carmen Bradley doesn't miss a Ridgewood High School swim meet, basketball game or football game.

When her kids play, she's there.

But she always sits by herself.

"I don't talk to other parents because I'm embarrassed," the 48-year-old said. "First impressions are everything."

For 15 years, Carmen's first impression has been a scarred smile of chipped and neglected teeth. Her ex-husband punched her, slapped her and hit her with ashtrays, she said. He wouldn't let her see a dentist.

She has saved up many smiles over the years. Next month -- when she's scheduled to get a full denture on top and a partial denture on the bottom -- the smiles will start pouring out, she said.

"I can't wait to be able to just really laugh," the Port Richey woman said.

Bradley is the second client of a new, informal network of Pasco dental care workers -- teamed with domestic violence workers and assorted other concerned groups -- looking to provide inexpensive or free dental care to the victims of domestic violence.

The idea was hatched this summer by Pat Holihan, owner of Paradent Dental Lab in New Port Richey, who brought the concept to state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Then it got going.

Yellow Cab Co. has signed on to provide free rides to dental appointments. The Pasco County Health Department has begun doing preliminary examinations of patients. Pasco-Hernando Community College's dental program will do the same.

After the initial work, the West Pasco Dental Association, a group with about 60 members, has agreed to develop a rotation of dentists willing to provide free or at-cost services, such as oral surgeries and denture construction.

Still, much about the program remains to be seen. Officials are looking for dentists in east Pasco and have expressed some concern about the potential cost, as few eligibility guidelines have been set.

Domestic violence workers expect at least 20 women a year to seek referrals. As long as the victim has taken steps to stop the abuse, by filing a police report or going to a domestic violence shelter, she is eligible.

Broken teeth, and the shattered self-esteem that follows, are an often-forgotten aspect of domestic violence, officials said.

Every time Bradley glances at a mirror, she is reminded of her 12-year marriage, which ended in 1985.

"When I look at myself, I think of the times I did get beat," she said.

Her friends have long told her that she doesn't look the part. She's well-tanned, works as an administrative assistant for a New Port Richey doctor's office and her beret matches her deep blue eyes.

That effort, Bradley said, is a combination of her upbringing in Panama, where she was taught to dress well even if she didn't have money, and an attempt to make people look anywhere but her mouth.

She is in the middle of fixing the problem.

Dr. Jay Rosoff, a Hudson dentist and member of the Association, has pulled her bad teeth, leaving only four. Next month she'll get the dentures, and her self-esteem. All at a price tag of more than $2,000.

Her low-paying insurance will give Rosoff some money, the dentist said. And the rest, well, it's probably nothing he'll charge her.

Gary Ruth Matthews of Hudson is seeking the same help. She recently visited the health department, five years after she lost most of her teeth, broke her jaw and had two metal plates inserted. Her then-boyfriend knocked her out and tried to put her through the windshield of the car, she said.

"With teeth like these, you don't waitress," the 35-year-old woman said.

That's what she was five years ago -- a waitress at a Kmart cafe. She has been unemployed since.

Bradley said she hopes to spread word of the program to other women, such as Matthews.

"She's going to be good guidance for somebody down the road," Holihan said. "We're trying to form that circle."

To hear her at her loudest, Bradley said, they'll need only to look poolside at Ridgewood -- smack in the middle of all the other parents -- while 16-year-old Natasha Bradley finishes a race.

-- Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452 or by e-mail at rdavis@sptimes.com.

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