It all starts with a warm welcome at the reception desk. Many people dread going to the dentist, but Eastmont Dental Clinic is turning dental visits into positive experiences. Parents and siblings are welcome, interpreter services are offered and no one in pain is turned away. On this day, patients are introduced to Pamela Alston, DDS, a gentle, smiling dentist who asks her patients about school, their families and for their permission to begin the exam – all before she ever lays a hand in their mouth.
Dr. Alston provides expert care and leads the finely-tuned operation at Alameda Health System’s (AHS’s) Eastmont Wellness Center (EWC) dental clinic, located at Eastmont Mall. Dr. Alston is an industry leading, pediatric dentist who’s been with AHS for 35 years. With a motto of “Your Child is Our Child,” Dr. Alston, and her family-friendly team empower their patients to achieve good dental health. There isn’t any judgment or lecturing here, even if poor dental health is revealed. Rather, there is a staff that radiates excitement about teeth, and about helping children and families take care of theirs.
First Tooth, First Visit
Kenny* has been coming to the Eastmont Dental Clinic every 6 months since he was two years old. Kenny, who is now 12-years-old, has never had a cavity. Dr. Alston attributes his cavity-free mouth to his early start with dental care. Years ago, Kenny’s introduction to the dentist at age 2 would have been rare. Traditionally, pediatric dental care began at age 5 or 6, but most children already have cavities by then. Dr. Alston believed that if she could start treating patients earlier, she could delay or prevent the onset of cavities altogether.
She was right. Almost all of Dr. Alston’s first-time patients already had cavities by age 6; when the first visit was at age 5, about 80% had cavities; and that number fell to about 60% with a first visit at age 3. Over time, Dr. Alston and her team leveraged these observations and partnered with AHS to begin providing dental care upon the arrival of a child’s first tooth. This is a vital service for the Clinic’s children and their families who may not otherwise be able to afford such excellent dental care.
Teaching Healthy Dental Care
Staff members like Marcus Howard are part of the expert care team at Eastmont Dental. Marcus is a registered dental assistant and he used to work at Stanford, but he wanted to bring his skills to a community with greater need. Marcus teaches children brushing techniques that help reverse many common dental ailments. For 9-year-old Isabela*, a diagnosis of gingivitis, which results in swollen, bleeding gums, was treated as a great opportunity for Marcus to give her a fun, hands-on teeth brushing lesson.
Immediately following the lesson, Isabela applied her learning. Marcus gave her a mirror and red tablet dyed with natural beet juice to chew. Isabela saw her teeth quickly change into pink and red colors. The red indicated where the plaque was building up around her gums causing the gingivitis. Isabela demonstrated her newly learned technique. Marcus applauded her when the red and pink began to disappear. He also pointed out areas still in need of her attention, and encouraged her to continue brushing until the color was gone.
It’s a family affair at Eastmont Dental. While Isabela worked on round two, it was now her mother’s turn for the lesson. If parents are learning the same good care as their kids, it positively impacts the whole family. During her mother’s lesson, Isabela continued brushing carefully and used her mirror to remove every last speck of pink and red dye from her mouth.
Engaging Children and Setting Goals
While there are many different patients, Dr. Alston and Marcus ask the same questions of each patient, involving them in their own care:
Children as young as kindergartners are engaged in this way. For 5-year-old Laura* her goal was to close her eyes when she returned for a filling so that she wouldn’t be afraid of the numbing shot. When Dr. Alston asked what she might think about with her eyes closed, she replied, “I’ll think of nice things my mom does for me.”
Oftentimes patients put off seeing a dentist due to cost and health coverage concerns. The need for low-cost or free dental care isn’t lost on Dr. Alston. She grew up in Oakland in a large family with 9 kids. Her parents divorced when she was seven and she remembers money being tight. No matter her family’s financial standing, dental care was always a service that they made the effort to maintain. As a little girl, Dr. Alston would go to her dentist’s office and be in awe of the large positive impact he had on patients. From aches and pains in the waiting room, to smiles and no more pain after the visit, the dentist was like a neighborhood hero. As a little girl, this inspired Dr. Alston to become a dentist and help people.
Decades later, Dr. Alston is a neighborhood hero. She and her team are delivering healthy teeth and happy smiles throughout the year.
Not only do families see her as a hero, but funders and donors do, as well. Recently, AHS Foundation received two grants from the Alameda County Dental Society’s Dental Health Foundation to support Dr. Alston’s work. One funded educational materials for the clinic staff to use to teach young children and teenagers how to care for their teeth, and the other provided tools for the staff to use in preventing cavities in very young children.
*Child names have been changed to protect their privacy.