Stuart Datz and his 28-year-old son Josef, never miss the Special Olympics.
Dad and his special needs adult child love to swim, bike and run together, so naturally Stuart was at the University of Richmond to watch Josef compete in the statewide event. And after the athletics was over, they took a seat on the second floor of the Robbins Center to wait for Josef’s name to be called for a free dental cleaning.
“It’s so positive and so wonderful that they provide this service for this population,” said Datz, who runs a medical equipment company in Springfield, Virginia. “We come every year now.”
The Datzs were among a couple hundred patients and parents who took advantage of this annual Missions of Mercy or MOM event, conducted by the Virginia Dental Association Foundation and staffed in part by a host of VCU dental students and VDA dentists along with their office teams.
Association member John Unkle’s name is followed by five initials, DDS and MD. He is both a pediatrician and a dentist and well schooled in helping children and young adults who are challenged to be able to sit in a treatment chair for an extended period. “Many have neurological issues and become very scared when they have to see a dentist,” said Unkle, who has made their care a particular focus of his professional life. “Often we have to sedate them to do our work.”
Unkle, and his patients, are fortunate that Bon Secours provides a clinic in Richmond where each Wednesday, he can treat just special needs youngsters. He has a staff and dental school residents, including this day Jessica Thacker from Memphis who is one year into a two-year residency at VCU. “I believe being a pediatric dentist is a wonderful career because you are able to be a good role model for your patients,” she says. “It also keeps you young.” Luke Winter, from Berryville, is about to complete his residency under Dr. Unkle. “You don’t really learn about pediatrics or special needs patients in dental school,” the UVA undergrad said. “So this program, and coming here to the MOM project, is great for my preparation.”
All morning long, the sweating athletes, many gripping medals won in bocce, swimming, softball, track and field, bowling or tennis, filed in, were examined and treated. “It’s really a great thing these dentists and other volunteers do,” said Dr. John O’Bannon, a Richmond neurologist and member of the House of Delegates. He was touring the MOM event this day with Williamsburg area State Senator Tommy Norment, Richmond State Senator and OB/GYN Siobhan Dunnavant MD and her brother, former Virginia Beach State Senator and now the city’s sheriff Ken Stolle, who serves on the board of Virginia Special Olympics. Also in the entourage was retired Richmond Attorney Sandy Norman, one of 3,000 volunteers at UR for the weekend. He quoted Muhammad Ali, who was buried a day earlier, saying, “public service is your rent for being here on earth.”
That’s certainly the motto for dentist Matthew Cooke, who started the MOM effort at the Special Olympics while teaching at VCU and returns each June with a team of other instructors and students from the University of Pittsburgh, where he now teaches. Among them was fellow faculty member Lynne Taiclet. “In most states, including Virginia, Medicaid and other programs do not cover care for special needs people past 21, so they depend on these annual free standing clinics.”
That’s why the VDAF, its sponsors and providers keep coming back too, with their probes, retractors, mirrors and explorers in hand. “It’s the reason we are conducting five MOM’s this year,” says Barbara Rollins, logistics director for the Foundation, “continuing in July in Wise County where it all started. The need never ends.”