Chicago Tribune

8 extractions, 23 fillings and a big smile: How a South Side dental clinic is serving Chicago's most vulnerable patients

In a sunlit room down a white hallway in St. Bernard Hospital on Chicago's South Side, Francine and Rodney Mitchell are waiting.

Their teenage son, Andy, lies on an operating table not far away, asleep amid the beeps of monitors, the hiss and thump of an oxygen machine, and the unmistakable, high-pitched whir of a dental drill. Andy is intellectually and physically disabled, not easily able to communicate or control his own body, and though he has survived and even thrived under the care of two dedicated parents, routine dental care has been difficult to obtain.

Like many people with special needs in the U.S., Andy has suffered with untreated tooth decay. He has been in pain and now has cavities in 23 teeth, bone loss around his front teeth, and eight teeth that will need to be extracted before his treatment today is over. "He can't really tell you when something hurts," says his father. "He'll just ball up and cry."

The Mitchells knew that Andy's teeth needed care but struggled to find dentists who were willing or able to help. "We tried to take him to a neighborhood clinic," Rodney says, "but they didn't want to touch him. A lot of dentists won't touch special-needs people." Rodney also took Andy, in his wheelchair, to an open clinic day at the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the few places that is known as a treatment option for patients with special needs. They

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