BY STEPHANIE VON HIRSCHBERG
The patient came to the clinic run by Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) on Bloomington’s west side hoping for a miracle. He had a raging toothache and a mouthful of black stumps where his teeth had rotted away. But pain wasn’t his only worry. His employer had warned that he would lose his job — which involved contact with the public — unless he got his teeth fixed. He had no insurance and could not afford treatment.
VIM dentist Dr. Park Firebaugh quickly set to work. Weeks later, after multiple extractions, fillings, and a course of antibiotics, the patient received a set of upper dentures. “We handed him a mirror when he put them in for the first time,” says Nancy Richman, VIM’s executive director. “He started crying. His entire face changed. Earlier, it was sunken in. The difference was unbelievable.”
VIM, a national nonprofit program, has been treating the area’s neediest residents since it launched here in 2007. Care is free for people ages 19–62 whose annual income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,540 for a household of one, $54,180 for four). Most are unemployed or underemployed, and uninsured, although some with health insurance do get help if they can’t afford the care they need. With 120 volunteers and 18 full- and part-time staff members, VIM, located at 811 W. 2nd St., offers an array of services (in Spanish and English) that includes primary and acute care, mental health treatment, and health education.
Dental problems, including massive infections, are the main reason many people seek help. In response, VIM recently hired two paid, part-time dentists who do extractions and fillings on about 30 patients a week, and a paid, part-time dental hygienist. Three volunteer dentists, who used to perform these services, now donate root canal and other specialized procedures.
The link between dental and other medical issues is well established, but, as Richman points out, “inadequate housing, poor nutrition, and health illiteracy have a bigger impact on health than medical intervention.” Much of VIM’s work involves combatting the fallout from poverty. When a doctor offered to donate life-saving surgery only if the homeless patient had a clean, safe place to recuperate, VIM staff spent hours coming up with a solution.
VIM receives funds from Monroe and Owen counties, grants (it’s a United Way agency partner), and donations. Cook Medical is a major supporter, as is IU Health Bloomington Hospital, which contributes to VIM’s efforts to keep people out of emergency rooms by supplying a paid pharmacist and three nurses. But health education remains central to their mission.
When Dr. Stephen Pritchard did a recent dental assessment, he immediately saw that the young man, a student, did not brush his teeth regularly. They were covered in plaque. Pritchard launched into his oral hygiene pitch, handing the patient a mirror so he could watch as the plaque was scraped away. “He saw the film come off his teeth, like the peeling of an orange,” says Pritchard. “It was gross.” But the student, who turned out to have eight cavities, got the message.
For more information, visit vimmonroecounty.org.