Linda Peterson, a homebound senior, hadn’t had her teeth cleaned in more than two years. Then she saw a flier at a health clinic with an offer that seemed almost too good to be true: free in-home teeth cleaning and oral cancer screening.
She soon had an appointment with Justin Urbano DH ’10. When the cheerful Urbano arrived at Peterson’s home, he gave her a choice: She could lie on the couch for her cleaning or use a zero-gravity camping-style chair to lean back on.
“I chose the chair,” Peterson said. “Justin gave me a very thorough cleaning, and he brought all his own instruments so we didn’t even need to be near a sink.”
It’s all part of the job for Urbano, a graduate from the dental hygiene program at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, who works with the Free Clinic of Simi Valley to provide oral cancer screenings and preventive care to seniors, 60-plus years of age, for free.
A knack for dentistry
Urbano got into dental hygiene work through a regional occupational program in high school. On a whim, he decided to try dental work and discovered he had a knack for it.
“I just find it really fruitful to help people,” he said.
When he found out USC was offering a bachelor’s program in dental hygiene, he was thrilled. “Everything I’ve learned in school, I am able to apply to the practical work of seeing patients.”
On a typical day, Urbano sees patients of all ages at the clinic in Simi Valley. Then, on weekends and Mondays, he travels to adult day-care facilities, adult living centers and makes house calls for seniors who can’t come into the clinic. He spends about 16 hours each week on this kind of work.
The program was made possible last year when the Free Clinic of Simi Valley received a $225,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation to sustain dental care for low-income adults and those who are age 60 and older in southeast Ventura County and nearby communities. While the grant covers the mileage he travels, Urbano volunteers his time doing these visits.
To make those house calls, Urbano has to squeeze all the equipment of a dentist’s office — a chair, a stool, suction machine, water and an ultrasonic cleaning machine — into his small car.
“It’s like a game of Tetris,” he said.
This service is vital because 10 percent of Ventura County’s approximately 165,000 seniors cannot afford dental treatment or have unaddressed advanced oral disease, according to clinic administrators who estimate that 85 percent of low-income seniors don’t have usable dental coverage.
Urbano also sees children as part of USC’s Children’s Health and Maintenance Program, which screens children — up to age 5 — for dental problems, administers preventive fluoride treatments and provides families with oral health education.
“I have the same type of compassion with the elderly patients as I do with the children,” he said, adding that respect and patience are the most important.
Urbano finds fulfillment in helping the community.
“When I first started my career, I knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how,” he said. “Now I know I can apply everything I have learned at Ostrow.”
But there are some challenges. In addition to the physical aspect of lugging the equipment, Urbano has to coordinate with social workers or caregivers and make sure that patients with dementia understand what he is trying to do.
Urbano is able to work in peoples’ homes because he is licensed as a registered dental hygienist in alternative practice. The license allows him to provide services in places other than traditional dental offices, such as the homes of seniors or various clinics throughout the county.
We really wanted to serve everyone in the community.
“Alternative practice hygiene only came into being in the late ’90s/early 2000s,” he said. “It’s designed to help those who are underserved.”
At USC, he did rotations at Union Rescue Mission — along with other dental hygiene students.
“Everything we have done with our classes, we really wanted to serve everyone in the community,” he said. “I really look back and appreciate everything my professors have given me.”
As for Peterson, the homebound senior in Urbano’s care, she had nothing but high praise for the visit.
“There is almost no waiting. Justin is very personable, friendly and sensitive,” she said. “The program is excellent and if you have any dental needs, they’ll take care of it for free in the office.”
For more information or to make an appointment, contact Urbano at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 236-0125.