Concern grows for pediatric dental care in Cherokee – The Cherokee One Feather


One Feather Staff

Dental care was not the primary concern of most people when the pandemic ended last spring.

Schools, workplaces and restaurants all closed their doors. Daily routines were shattered. Under all of this, healthcare began to become a problem. People couldn’t see hospitalized relatives, and before that, basic procedures became near-impossible accomplishments.

Mellie Burns, center, EBCI / PHHS Children’s Dental Program manager, delivered 700 oral health kits to Cherokee Elementary School on the morning of Thursday, April 8. She is shown with Jess Walkingstick, fifth grader, and Addie Martin, Pre-K, in school. “We’re just really trying to promote a good dental health message,” Burns said. She previously said that the program cannot provide the routine services in the school due to COVID-19 restrictions. “But I wanted to make sure that all students had the necessary supplies to care for their teeth and, on a small scale, continue to promote good health habits.” (SCOTT MCKIE BP / One Feather photo)

Pediatric dental care is one of those systems that has taken a major hit in the past year. Mellie Burns, director of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Children’s Dental Program, wants to bring this issue to the fore.

“There is a tremendous sense of loss, but a greater sense of concern for the children,” Burns said. “Over the past 12 years, we have seen a massive decrease in the number of children who we believe have urgent dental needs. Those numbers just went down and down and down and down, which is great. That’s what we want. So my biggest concern at this point is that when I get to start screening kids again, I’ll see that number take a huge leap. Only because access to care has been severely affected. “

Burns has worked for the Tribe for 13 years and tackling dental care at the minimal to moderate level of need in children has been her focus since she started.

“Our function as a program is to provide dental health education and prevention services in a fun and engaging way for children,” she said. “Before the pandemic, what I’ve been doing for 12 years is going to Cherokee Central Schools, daycare centers on the ground, and doing dental exams for all those kids personally.”

For her, COVID-19 was a complete shift in her role in Cherokee. She can no longer make her visits to the school and most of the daily activities of her program are broken.

“I hate to use this terminology, but from the kind of public health services I provide, it has slowed me down a bit. Really, ”said Burns.

She has engaged in other ways as well, including as a member of the EBCI Mass Vaccination team. She also recently delivered 700 oral care kits to Cherokee Central Schools, the same types of kits she would give children when running her programs and screenings. The USET office in Nashville gave these kits to Tribal Public Health and Human Services (PHHS). Burns also collected supplies to bring similar care packages to all the local schools she attends. These include the New Kituwah Academy, Agelink Daycare, Kaleidoscope Dream Daycare, and Chekelee and Snowbird Child Development.

The only option on the border is currently Cherokee Indian Hospital dental clinic. Leigah Custer, dental assistant supervisor, says they are still working on getting up to speed.

“At first, with the peak of COVID, we had to stop all services, and then most of the clinic but two went on leave,” Custer said.

As operations slowly started to open up, the situation didn’t get much easier. There is currently only one pediatric dental care provider for the hospital – Dr. Lucy Komorowski, DMD.

“When everyone came back, we had two for a short while, and then another left,” said Custer. “We only have one dental care provider for children. So our services are being cut because of this just because we are under-staffed. She’s alone. She mainly records emergencies. ”

She said they hope to fill that vacancy soon. Until then, almost all services offered for pediatric dental care will be for emergencies.

A flyer from the Tribal Children’s Dental Clinic encourages young people to practice good oral hygiene.

Consuela Girty, director of the Hope Center and Pre-K, shares Burns’s concerns about this gap in primary dental care.

“It’s pretty impressive. You don’t realize how quickly dental health can get out of hand. Even with my own kids, I’m concerned. Because we haven’t been to the dentist for over a year, while we used to it. are up to six-month checks. “

Girty often teams up with Burns to set up her visits. She ensures that her students’ oral hygiene is taken care of, with children usually brushing their teeth at school. That’s one of the many things stopped by COVID protocols. Girty said this is not a situation to be taken lightly.

“Especially with our Pre-K program. With our specific program, we tend to serve children with high needs. Whether it is education, income, or whatever their need is, we can serve those children. Those are usually the ones you have to catch in school, and without that screening being offered, it’s going to be difficult, ”said Girty.

She says it has so much to do with routine. The pandemic has uprooted day-to-day business, and Girty says it has had serious consequences for younger children. She said that is clear now that the schools are back to work. The little things, like parents walking to class with their children.

“There are so many details that people don’t see, and you don’t realize how exhausting and how difficult and stressful it is. And frankly, how sad. Because it breaks your heart that you cannot do these things that you know are developmentally fit for this child. And you know they need it. “

Burns says many of the dental health issues may seem minor, but they have a habit of escalating if not treated properly.

“I don’t worry too much about kids getting excruciating toothaches or extremely serious dental problems because I feel like the hospital has that plan. I think where we’ll be behind the eight ball when things open up again, we’re going to see a lot of kids with dental problems that are on the minimum to moderate range. Whereas if we were at full speed, we catch them before they are even minimal, ”said Burns.

She says she has a fantastic relationship with the schools and the people who work there. She often receives calls from concerned teachers or discusses strategies with administrators.

“I desperately missed being in the schools and seeing these children routinely. I am hopeful that in the fall of this year it will be in better conditions so that I can start offering those services again. “

Not being able to offer fun upbringing and assistance to children on and around the border has made long and stressful days for Burns. Eventually she comes back to class. Then the next generation of children is visited, many of whom have called the tooth fairy.

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