‘Dentist Meg” is a household name for the Lindstroms.
Five-year-old Grace reminds her siblings, “Dentist Meg says brush your teeth.” Eleven-year-old Jamari, who had severe dental problems when he came to the Lindstrom family four years ago, now looks forward to the dentist as his favorite kind of doctor to go to.
“She is definitely like a celebrity dentist,” mom Heather Lindstrom said.
Dentist Meg, also known as Dr. Margaret Vizgirda, works at the Oak Park-River Forest Infant Welfare Society’s Children’s Clinic in Oak Park, where the Lindstroms are among a number of families with children who come for dental and other health care.
The clinic completed a renovation in September that enhanced the dental suite, among other things. The renovation added two private dental rooms tailored to treating children with special needs. Whereas the regular dental rooms are doubles, containing two chairs per room, the private rooms give children with difficulties sitting quietly for an exam the privacy and sound-proofing to make the young patients’ experiences better and easier.
Lindstrom has three children, two of whom have special needs. When she came to the Children’s Clinic, she wasn’t even looking for specialty providers — she was looking for quality dental care that accepted Medicaid.
Prior to discovering the Children’s Clinic, Lindstrom struggled to find the dental care her kids so badly needed.
“Before we found the Children’s Clinic, we were on waiting lists for other dentist who took Medicaid with no real hope that anything was going to come to fruition in the timeline we needed,” Lindstrom said. She and her husband Dave are foster and adoptive parents who sometimes need to address pressing health and dental issues in an immediate timeframe.
Children in poverty in Illinois are five times more likely to have fair or poor oral health, according to the 2016 Oral Health in Illinois assessment. Almost half of children on Medicaid never even saw a dentist that year.
Illinois has the fourth worst Medicaid reimbursement rate in the country, which drives down the number of dental clinics willing to accept Medicaid, which only exacerbates the incidence of poor oral hygiene in low-income communities. The dental clinics that do accept Medicaid are often understaffed and inaccessible.
“You can go and wait all day — you don’t have an appointment time; you have an ‘appointment window,'” Lindstrom said about such clinics. “You’re on a waiting list that is months and months long, and then you can go and sit there for hours.”
That was the first change for Lindstrom when she contacted the Children’s Clinic.
“I called on Tuesday and they got me in on Friday,” Lindstrom said. “It was amazing.”
But the Children’s Clinic is not just unique for its accessibility, but also its scope and quality of care.
The clinic has three pediatric dentists, or pedodontists, on staff. Being a pediatric dentist requires an extra two years of schooling after receiving a degree in dentistry, and it includes training on how to treat children with special needs. According to Dr. Jazmine Dillard, one of the pediatric dentists on staff, the focus of specially trained and accredited pediatric dentists under one roof at the Children’s Clinic is something that she hasn’t seen a lot in her career.
“I’ve worked at other clinics that do serve the same population, just in a different capacity. They didn’t have a lot of pediatric dentists,” Dillard said. “That is what I like most about this facility.”
Although economic accessibility is the reason Lindstrom can bring her family to the Children’s Clinic, what really moves her is quality of care from staff trained to treat all kinds of children.
“It’s really hard to find doctors, let alone a dentist or an eye doctor, who are willing to work with and embrace special needs kids,” Lindstrom said. “With developmental delays and sensory issues, Dentist Meg just rolls with it. She sings songs. She’s never frazzled.”
As a “medical home,” the clinic strives to treat every aspect of a child’s health, from physical to dental to emotional and behavioral. While a social worker screening is a part of every “well-child” pediatric visit, it was not a part of dental visits.
However, because of the clinic’s rarity as a dental provider, there are many patients like the Lindstroms who are only dental patients, which means that they were not benefitting from access to a social worker and a behavioral screening.
Children’s Clinic Executive Director Peggy LaFleur noticed the gap in service. “I started thinking, can we screen at dental visits?”
The answer was yes. The dental team at the Children’s Clinic is participating in a pilot program that intends to fill the gap. Through dentist training and social worker screenings at dental exams, LaFleur hopes to catch some instances of behavioral issues and even abuse that are falling through the cracks.
Dental care can have effects that reach much further than the teeth. Doctors can learn something about a child’s nutrition through their teeth, they can screen for HPV, and there can even be signs of abuse found during an oral examination. Dental issues can also contribute to behavioral and emotional issues.
Dillard has noticed behavioral changes after treating patients for dental issues. After inserting a space maintainer into a child’s mouth, which had to be done with the patient under general anesthesia, she noticed that the child was able to sit calmly through subsequent visits.
“It’s like night and day,” Dillard said. “It’s quite miraculous to see how they do an about-face after the treatment.”
Lindstrom said the biggest change she saw for her son Jamari after his dental treatments was an increase in self-confidence, and a commitment to keeping his mouth healthy.
Although Lindstrom’s children have not had an appointment in the new private dental rooms, she said she is already looking forward to the experience.
“We’re really excited about the new rooms because that adds a whole other level of peace — because I know my child who is going to scream the entire time could possibly not be totally affecting somebody else’s experience.”