Dentist opens dialogue

Program promotes oral health in elementary students

Program promotes oral health in elementary students

February 17, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

When Dr. Bob Johnson talks to Washington County preschoolers, Head Starters, kindergarteners and first- and second-graders, he asks them if they know what causes cavities in their teeth.

They typically respond with answers of candy and bubble gum, sugar and sweets.

Johnson sets them straight.

"All food is bad for your teeth," he tells them. Any food - even healthy foods that promote growth - will cause tooth decay if it's left on teeth.

Johnson, Washington County Health Department's dental director for more than 15 years, explains the process of tooth decay in attention-getting terms:


Everybody's mouth contains bacteria.

Bacteria eat food left on teeth.

Then they "poop," Johnson tells the kids.

Bacteria excretions become plaque, sticking to teeth like barnacles on a boat and causing cavities.


Every year, Johnson and dental hygienist Kim Williams visit 34 public and private elementary schools in the county to talk about dental health.

Williams laughs that her presentation is not quite as graphic as Johnson's, but she also talks to children about the importance of brushing and flossing their teeth and getting regular dental checkups.

Williams also tells the kids to "swish and swallow."

Rinsing your mouth after you eat is the most important thing, Johnson says. Taking a mouthful of water and swishing it hard is something Johnson does himself, and at 71, he's happy to report he has all of his teeth.

Toothbrushes don't need to be fancy, and Johnson says there's no right way to brush. "You gotta floss every day," Johnson says.

Ideally, children should see a dentist before they're 2 years old, Johnson says.

The teeth of most of the Washington County kids Johnson sees when he goes into the schools are good. But about 10 percent are really bad, he says.

Baby teeth are important. A lot of people say "Oh, they're just baby teeth," Williams says, but pulling decayed baby teeth too soon can cause spacing problems for the permanent teeth, affecting the "bite," the way the upper and lower teeth meet.

Johnson and his assistant of eight years, Wilma Richards, visited Greenbrier Elementary School last week, screening second- and third-grade students for the three-year-old state-funded program that provides sealants for students' "first-year" molars.

They work quickly and with good humor, Johnson peering into wide-open mouths, accounting for baby teeth and the permanent molars that are eligible for sealants. He says he's also checking for good oral health, looking under their tongues, at their cheeks, down their throats.

"These kids are great," Johnson says.

And the kids don't seem to mind a bit.

Sydney Shay Allen, 8, a Greenbrier third-grader, says she brushes her teeth every day. "I wake up. Get dressed. Brush my hair. Brush my teeth," she says.

Everyone gets 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent teeth, Johnson says. The first molars, the grinding teeth at the back of the mouth, pop through between ages 3 and 8. Age 5 1/2 is average, Johnson says.

After Johnson screens the kids, Williams and an assistant visit six to eight schools per year, applying sealant to the first-year molars. Participation in the program is free.

Williams and Susan Huber, a dental assistant trainee, recently visited Maugansville Elementary School. They brought a portable dental office - a bench, compressor, lights and tools. They explained every step of the process to each child there, with parental permission, to receive the sealants.

"Is it gonna hurt?" is a question some kids ask, Huber says.

The answer is no.

Huber cleans the teeth. Williams paints them with an etching liquid that helps the sealant adhere to the tooth surface. Huber mixes together two liquids to make the sealant, a plastic substance, and Williams paints it on the teeth. After a few minutes, the sealant is dry, welded onto the teeth.

"Each side gets painted two times, rinsed two times, then we're finished," Williams says.

The process is painless, simple, takes only a few minutes and can provide years of protection.

Maugansville Elementary second-grader Emma Gist had her teeth sealed.

Was it a big deal?

"No," she laughs. But she understands the benefit. "It will help me not get cavities," she says.

Retired from 29 years of military service, some of them as chief of U.S. Army Research and Development Command, Johnson enjoys his work in Washington County schools. "I have fun," he says.

Other parts of his job are not fun. He pulls teeth, an estimated 75,000 in the fewer than 10 years the Washington County Health Department has had its Tuesday extraction clinic in Hagerstown. Johnson also pulls teeth once a month in Hancock and Cumberland, Md.

The programs in the schools are designed to promote dental health early, to help prevent problems that could result in tooth pulling later in life.

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