Opinion: Dental care still lacking in many Alaska Native villages
"When I moved to Barrow in 1972, the only dental care available over the entire 88,000 square miles of the North Slope was one Indian Health Service dentist who, quite frankly, was paying back a scholarship obligation and had less than great dedication to improving oral health there. So routine dental care consisted of filling and pulling. And often it was the patient doing the pulling because no dentist showed up in some villages for months or years on end.

I took advantage of the lack of dental services to avoid ever seeing a dentist. I thought I was in heaven. Then the borough took over the dental contract from Indian Health Service and I hired a dentist to come to Barrow to set up a real practice. The next thing I knew, he had me in a dental chair and from somewhere above the bright light shining in my face as he did an exam I heard him say, "You have the oral hygiene of Genghis Khan." After that I went to the dentist a lot more often and eventually managed to not end up with dentures before I was 30.

But a lot of North Slope residents weren't so lucky. They didn't have teeth and they didn't have dentures. Their teeth had fallen out or been pulled and not replaced. People younger than me looked decades older because they were toothless. So one of the first things we did when the dental program got organized was to hold denture clinics in Barrow. I can't begin to describe what it was like to see these young Inupiat enter the dental clinic as toothless old people and emerge with a set of gleaming teeth and a wide smile, finally looking as young as they really were.

Yet dental care is still, in many respects, the unwanted stepchild of health care in the Bush."

Get the Story:
Elise Patkotak: Dentists should help with aide program (The Anchorage Daily News 11/10)

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Editorial: Time needed to assess dental therapy in Native villages (11/8)
Dentist groups still oppose the use of therapists in Native villages (11/2)
Study cites benefits in dental health for Alaska Native villages (10/27)