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Program brings dental care to uninsured

SOLANA BEACH — The desire to heal comes naturally to most doctors, but it is often stifled under the complexity of medical bureaucracy.

Under the guidance of Dr. Richard Wheelock, the St. Jame's and St. Leo's Medical and Dental Program has left the bureaucracy at the front door, offering low cost medical care to thousands of families without insurance for over 13 years.

"People truly want to be here and offer their time",said Deacon Albert Graff. "More than anything, this is just a very happy place to be."

Wheelock approached Graff about the medical clinic in 1991 after returning from a trip to Tijuana, where he had been overwhelmed by the lack of medical care available for the working poor.

The medical facility started as a small room attached to one of the churches, but has since expanded to an impressive facility with five examination rooms, a waiting area and a mini-pharmacy.

The medical and dental clinics are open on Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning at 8:30 a.m. and an average of 80 patients are seen each week.

Only patients without medical insurance are seen at the clinic, but those with MediCal are referred to a nearby medical facility.

The medical clinic is equipped for primary family medicine, and 30 specialists from all over San Diego volunteer their time.

Several hospitals in the area including Scripps Encinitas and Children's Hospital offer their services for patients in need of hospitalization and surgery at no charge.

Funding for the program has come primarily from grants and donations from local rotary clubs, California Endowment, Price Charities and other generous individuals.

Patients who can afford it pay only a nominal fee of roughly $10 for a regular examination.

"Dr. Wheelock has this amazing ability to make sure every patient receives the special care they need no matter their situation",Graff said.

In one instance, a patient at the clinic was determined to have operable cancer, but when she was admitted to the hospital, she was sent away with a note on her medical record stating that she had no insurance and was 'not critically ill'.

Wheelock managed to secure a surgeon and anesthesiologist at Scripps Hospital to perform the surgery free of cost, saving the patient's life.

Graff said that one of the goals of the program is to take the load off of overcrowded hospital waiting rooms by providing service to the non-insured quickly, effectively and without question.

"We're taking the load off of the health profession by getting to these people before they end up in an emergency room", Graff said.

In 1995, the dental program opened under the direction of Dr. Bob Bobbit, and has grown over time to include four patient examination chairs with enough equipment to perform complete dental care for children ages 4 to 13.

"This program ensures the dental health of the next generation and is invaluable for their health as they grow older", Graff said.

Fourteen dentists, seven dental assistants and one hygienist, all volunteers, staff the program. Dental specialists and orthodontists are also available on an as-needed basis.

Bobbit's wife, Sue, teaches children proper dental hygiene at the facility, and all patients receive toothbrushes, floss and toothpaste after each visit.

On Wednesday evenings at the dental center, the Welcome Home Ministry Program, directed by Rev. Carmen Warner-Robbins, offers dental care to recently released prisoners.

"This program identifies inmates who genuinely want to change their lives and become good citizens", Graff said.

Graff said that many inmates have a hard time following the right path after being released because their peers are usually criminals as well.

Graff also said that the condition of inmates teeth after incarceration is extremely bad, and a nice smile can do wonders for both their confidence and the ability to find a good job.

"The Welcome Home Ministry really treats these people with dignity, and it means a lot to them".

For Graff, the most impressive aspect of the medical and dental program is how efficiently it is run.

"Our facilities are as well-run as any other doctor's office, and the care they receive here is as good as any they would receive if they had medical insurance", Graff said.

This is a truly special and uplifting place to be.

By Susan Grant
Staff Writer
Contact Staff Writer Susan Grant via e-mail at sgrant@coastnewsgroup.com