A mobile dental program in Pima County brings dentistry to schools in rural areas to provide care for children who otherwise can't get it.
The program, which runs from an RV the size of those frequently seen on Interstate 10, brings a dentist's office to people living in low income areas, who can't afford the time or the cost of traveling to Tucson for dental care.
It is funded by local grants, though the program takes insurance if a child has it, said Alix Phillips, dental director for United Community Health Center.
The area of service includes Sahuarita, Amado, Three Points, Continental and Vail, all outside of the denser Tucson city core.
The areas were identified because United Community Health Center's mission is to serve under-insured or uninsured residents of Pima County, Phillips said.
"These children simply have no other way to get dental treatment done," she said. "We all think that dental treatment isn’t as important as some other kinds of health care, but what we know now is that the infection in the mouth can (spread to the) rest of the body ... If that becomes a load of bacteria in the bloodstream, it can be fatal and has been."
The program is meant to address financial needs, but also the realities of physical access to such services, Phillips said.
"If you were a mom, worked full time, had very little money and your kid was in school, which would you prefer to do?" Phillips said. "Take a half a day off work, take your child out of school and take them to the dentist when you found one that would see you; or have the RV come to your school, and your child (miss) a half an hour of class."
Inside the RV, fitted tightly and creatively, there is a full dentist's office, with two exam rooms, including fully reclinable chairs, an X-ray room in the former bathroom, and a waiting area for patients.
Just as in any other dentist's office, Phillips said the amount of care varies for each kid who visits the RV during school days.
"We see kids, some, who have pretty healthy mouths, but we see many whose mouths are heart breaking, and...could mean four...five or six visits," Phillips said. "We see teenagers whose teeth are so bombed out that we need to do a root canal.”
Two siblings, who frequently visit the RV, said they've learned about dental hygiene.
"They say you should brush inside the cracks, and you should always floss, so you don’t have any germs," said Ruben Acedo.
His younger sister, Angelique Acedo, had two front teeth just starting to come in when she described her version of oral bacteria.
"If you have food still stuck in your teeth, bugs will come...poop on your teeth...eat and pee on your teeth," she said.
The unconventional description isn't comprehensive, but staff working in the RV said they were glad Angelique is starting to understand dental bacteria.
Spreading such knowledge to patients like Angelique and Ruben is one of the reasons Phillips said the mobile dental RV is so important.
The service is funded with local grants from organizations, such as Pima County, Freeport McMoRan, as well as non-profit agencies.
Children need parental permission to go to the RV in the first place, then possibly an additional round of consent if further treatment is needed, Phillips said.
"We bring the kid in for an exam...x-rays and cleaning, then send a consent form home to the parents for the treatment," Phillips said. "When that consent form comes back, then we start the treatment."
At the end of the visit, kids get a goodie bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and a timer to help kids ensure they spend enough time brushing their teeth.
This story is part of Arizona Public Media's week-long series on poverty.