For the better part of the last two decades, one organization has been putting healthy smiles on the faces of those who need them the most.
Special Smiles, from its homebase on Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond, is doing its part to provide comprehensive oral health care and resources for those with both mental and physical disabilities. That includes, among many other things, basic exams, preventative care and more extensive procedures such as surgeries.
It’s a demographic that has long struggled to find equal access to quality oral health care. Patricia Silverio, who works as a practice administrator for Special Smiles, said the extra care required by patients with special needs oftentimes finds them being turned away by most dentist offices. That lack of experience, to Silverio, is at the root of the problem.
“I get a lot of calls from parents, and it just breaks my heart,” Silverio said. “Just trying to find someone to care for their loved one who’s aged out of a pediatric practice, and not that many places want to take them on. And it’s just really unfortunate.”
They’re exactly the kind of patients Special Smiles dedicates itself to. While the company deals mainly with patients suffering from behaviors and anxieties that require more assistance than usual, any and all patients dealing with some form of a disability are welcome. They also work closely with insurance companies to ensure the care they receive is affordable and covered.
Learning to work with patients requiring extra attention is something Silverio and her coworkers believe all dentists should have some form of experience with, as it would go a long way toward developing much-needed oral health care equality.
“We think every dentist should go through the training to work with some special-needs patients even if they’re not going to dedicate themselves the way we do,” Silverio said. “Every dentist should have the training to at least see a handful of special-needs patients in their practice.”
To that end, education on that kind of care for those in and outside of the medical field is a major focus of the company. When the office was closed during the peak of the pandemic two years ago, it produced an hour-long webinar mainly geared toward caregivers at congregate living facilities it normally would give in-person presentations to. At the same time, the office realized that families of those with special needs might also find that kind of information helpful. So in place of a lengthy webinar, the office produced 10 six-minute videos that provide tips on ideal oral care practices that can be accessed free of charge.
“We figured anybody can spend six minutes learning how to do something better for their loved one,” Silverio said. “And it’s been wonderful. We got great feedback about it. It’s really helping our patients, which was the goal.”
Beyond that, the bonds that have been created with patients through the company’s work have been undeniable. Silverio recalls one young girl in particular who, after initially hiding in the corner of the waiting room, eventually began wearing a “special” outfit for every one of her appointments.
“I just think that is the most wonderful thing that she is that comfortable here now,” Silverio said. “I just love it.”
Looking ahead, aside from the usual work Special Smiles is doing, Silverio said the company is looking to expand its efforts into surrounding areas that may have a great need for the services it provides, namely New Jersey. No matter where the office ends up, she is eager to continue their efforts.
“It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love,” Silverio said.