Virginia Beach, Va. - Growing up in a household without medical or dental insurance, Elizabeth Parsons saw the effort her parents made to obtain the care she and her three siblings needed, sometimes at clinics for the uninsured. They owned a small business and the cost of premiums was out of reach. So when the university Parsons was attending sought volunteers to help at a dental event for the homeless, she responded immediately. It’s also the reason she still participates in the school’s outreach, even though she now has her degree and a full-time position as a dental assistant.
“My parents always made sure that my sisters, brother and I went to the dentist and the doctor, even though it meant putting their own health needs last,” said Parsons, 22. “So when the opportunity came up to help others, I said yes right away.”
Parsons, a Virginia Beach resident, will volunteer once again on February 24 and 25 at Gloucester High School as part of the Middle Peninsula Mission of Mercy Project. She will work alongside current students in the dental assisting program of her alma mater, ECPI University’s School of Health Sciences, Medical Careers Institute (MCI).
Student participation in clinics for the needy has been part of the University’s dental assisting program since its inception two and a half years ago, according to Dental Assisting Program Director Vicki Brett. “ECPI University has a strong tradition of volunteerism and when we started the dental assisting program, we looked for ways that our students could use the skills they were learning to benefit the community,” Brett said.
In March, 2010, seven members of the program’s first class traveled to Northern Virginia to assist dentists at a daylong clinic for the low-income and uninsured. “It was a tremendous experience and it made us want to keep volunteering,” said Brett. Since then, ECPIUniversity dental assisting students have helped at seven such clinics throughout Hampton Roads and elsewhere. They will volunteer for at least five more this year. The students perform a wide range of duties, from helping with X-rays, cleanings, fillings and extractions to setting up chairs, lights, suction apparatus and other equipment.
“Being able to serve others this way is such a powerful experience,” Brett said. “For many of the patients, this is the first dental care they’ve had in a long time. Some are in pain when they come in and we are able to help relieve them of their pain. We are also able to have an impact on their overall wellbeing, because poor dental health can lead to other kinds of problems, including heart disease.”
Elizabeth Parsons’ first day of volunteering was at a dental clinic for the homeless in Norfolk. “It was fast-paced, with hundreds of patients,” she said. “That night, I was totally worn out. I also knew that I wanted to do more.”
A high point was seeing how the patients’ self-esteem improved thanks to the dental work. “Some people were missing their front teeth and they were provided with what’s called a ‘flipper,’ a device that makes it appear they have teeth,” Parsons said. “It was very emotional. A few of them were so happy about this change in their appearance that they began to cry.”