Island father, son dentists volunteer at Tent City

Dr. Bob Lewis of Mercer Island, left, checks Karisa Vaughn’s teeth in the Medical Team International’s mobile dental truck at Tent City 4 on Mercer Island, Thursday. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Dr. Bob Lewis of Mercer Island, left, checks Karisa Vaughn’s teeth in the Medical Team International’s mobile dental truck at Tent City 4 on Mercer Island, Thursday.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Two generations of Island dentists teamed up last Thursday as they poked, prodded and X-rayed the mouths of homeless residents living in Tent City.

As part of a two-day service, volunteer dentists and hygienists with NW Medical Teams saw about two dozen patients from Tent City last week in a couple of 38-foot mobile dentistry vans. According to Medical Teams International director Dick Frederick, it was the first time that the vans had visited Mercer Island.

“It’s a very unique situation to have a father and son serving Tent City. That’s a first,” Frederick said. “It is also the first time we’ve had two vans at the same site.”

While retired Mercer Island dentist Bob Lewis has been volunteering with the organization since its inception a decade ago, he finally convinced his son, Chris, to help out. Chris Lewis has a practice on S.E. 24th Street, just down the hill from the United Methodist Church, where Tent City is being hosted through November.

“It’s handy for me. It’s nice not to have to drive down to Renton or Eugene [Ore.] this time,” Bob Lewis said of his short commute to the vans from his South-end home.

Frederick said that Bob has put in some mileage with his volunteer experience and that he is the model volunteer, willing to travel great distances on a short notice to help the low-income patients who the organization serves.

“We do emergent care, which means we want our dentists to see who is really hurting and are in pain,” said Frederick. “So kids in school can pay attention and not sit there aching.”

Frederick said the organization mostly serves low-income children and seniors, as well as many adults. Some of Lewis’ patients on Thursday had broken teeth or complained about various tooth-related pains. Frederick said that he is a congregation member of the Covenant Church and made the dental van resources available for Tent City as an “expression of our support of what’s going on.”

In addition to helping the patients, Frederick said that the experience also allows the dentist to treat patients without the associated and tedious paper work.

“It’s an opportunity for the dentists to practice their true craft and to treat folks that they would probably never see in their office,” Frederick said.

The second generation of Island dentists, Chris Lewis, said that it was his first time volunteering on the mobile dental vans, and he credited his father for his involvement.

“He’s been doing this a long time,” the younger Lewis said. “It’s been very interesting. They are very nice people,” Lewis said of the experience moments before treating a patient.

Inside the van, the front and rear resemble much of a dentist atmosphere, without the lobby to wait in. Each chair is accompanied by an X-ray camera, swivel trays and an overhead light. Each patient sees the dentist for about 45 minutes, getting the most important treatments first.

One patient who Bob Lewis treated on Thursday was willing to be photographed by the Reporter. While she sat down in a mobile dental chair for the first time, she expressed the nervousness that comes along with seeing the dentist after years without treatment.

“I don’t know what’s worse, this or finals,” said Tent City resident Karisa Vaughn as she sat into the dentist chair late Thursday morning.

Frederick said that with the help of volunteering dentists, the organization is able to provide dental services at about $77 per patient compared to the $350 of a normal visit. However, the services are free for those in need in Washington and Oregon, as the organization has three vans in the I-5 corridor and 11 total in the region. The service value of the dental van, including everything from volunteer hours to the supplies, is $5.4 million, Frederick said. He said the two biggest obstacles to dental care for low-income patients are costs and transportation.

“We eliminate the two biggest obstacles for these people by not charging them and bringing the services to them through the mobile vans,” Frederick said.

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