Smiles All Around Dental Health Clinic’s Creation Is a Story of Determination, Perseverance

Mike Foss says he felt “almost dizzy” at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the new dental clinic at Springfield Technical Community College a few weeks back, and this wasn’t because of the seemingly endless array of one-liners from speakers about how he had to give up his office in order for the facility to be built.

Rather, it was because he, probably more than anyone in the room, knew what it took to make that occasion possible. And also because he could recall several times over the past few years when he thought this ambitious vision — a conveniently located clinic that could serve 10,000 families living within a mile of the campus — just wasn’t going to become reality.

“It’s been a very, very frustrating project, and on a number of levels,” Foss, dean of the School of Health and Patient Simulation at STCC, told The Healthcare News several days after the ribbon was cut. “It was frustrating for me personally because it took us so long to get here and there were three or four times when I thought this project was dead, and I knew how important this was to the community and how it needed to happen.”

The fact that it is happening — the clinic is slated to open its doors sometime in May — is a testimony to the patience and determination of the many players involved, said Foss, listing, for starters, the college (specifically its president, Ira Rubenzahl, who was instrumental in finding money for the project), and also Western Mass. Hospital, which has long operated a dental clinic for its patients and those in the community, and saw a need to place such a facility in downtown Springfield.

There were other prominent players as well, he said, including Partners for a Healthier Community, the Springfield-based agency that, among other things, was strongly supporting a broad, region-wide oral health initiative. There was also help from the Preschool Oral Health Task Force and a number of area elected officials, especially state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who chairs the state House Oral Health Caucus.

“There was all kinds of juggling being done,” said Foss, “all kinds of work being done by individuals and groups to pull this off. In the end, it all came together.”

This story begins roughly four years ago — none of the parties involved recalls exactly when — or soon after then-Western Mass. Hospital President Blake Molleur, knowing that needed renovations at the hospital would require finding a temporary new home for the facility’s dental clinic, set out on a search. When he and others, including Partners for a Healthier Community Executive Director Frank Robinson, found such a site — in Building 20 on the STCC campus in space that was once a dental clinic and then home to Foss and other administrators’ offices — they quickly decided to remove the ‘temporary’ designation and replace it with ‘permanent.’

“As Frank, Blake, and I were looking the site over and I walked them through it, we just sort of turned to one another and said, ‘this isn’t something that should happen; it has to happen.”

The reason why can be found in some old photographs, kept by Dental Assistant staff members at the college and viewed by Foss whenever the project appeared headed for a serious impasse — and there were many such occasions.

“Every time I got discouraged, I pulled those pictures, taken years ago when the Dental Assistant faculty were doing screenings in the school district,” Foss said as he recalled when the photos were taken. “They called me in and said, ‘Mike, you need to see this first-hand; they opened this kid’s mouth, and it was simply bombed out. Her face was disfigured from infection, and permanent teeth were completely rotted away.

“It was so horrifying to me,” he continued, “that it kept me going when things weren’t looking so good. I kept thinking that if the parents of that kid could have brought her to a clinic like the one we wanted to build, she would have been taken care of.”

In this issue, The Healthcare News takes an indepth look at how the new dental clinic came to be, and what it means for the constituency it will soon serve.

Sound Bites

Derrick Tallman, Molleur’s successor at Western Mass. Hospital, said records he’s seen indicate that there has been a dental clinic at WMH since just after World War I. Created originally to serve patients of the hospital, the clinic has seen this clientele change, from tuberculosis patients in the early years to, in recent times, those on ventilators, with neuromuscular disorders, Alzheimer’s sufferers, those needing end-of-life care, and others.

In the mid-’80s, the clinic expanded its scope and began serving people on an outpatient basis. Clients included those diagnosed with HIV, said Tallman, adding that eventually there was a much broader constituency that he described as “underserved and underprivileged.”

Many of the individuals being served by the clinic would board mass-transit buses in Springfield for the ride to Westfield, said Foss, noting that, when WMH went looking for what was going to be a temporary site to which to relocate the clinic, downtown Springfield was deemed the ideal location.

And soon, the focus turned to STCC, which was accessible and had — or could assemble — the physical space for a clinic. In fact, as Foss said, his office at that time was once a dental clinic. “We had most of the infrastructure right here — there was a waiting room, office space, a storage area … it was all here.”

STCC also had students in a Dental Assistant program who could do the clinical-component portion of their studies at a facility right down from the hall from their lab.

It was an intriguing picture that made sense on a number of levels, said Foss, who told The Healthcare News, tongue-in-cheek, that there was “one little setback” standing in the way of the plan becoming reality.

“No one had any money,” he said, adding quickly that there were, in fact, several pockets of money — WMH had some annually budgeted for its outpatient clinic work, for example — but not enough to meet the projected $600,000 price tag (a number that kept climbing) to get the venture off the ground.

So, while the vision started to come clearly into focus, many of those aforementioned players set about finding some funding.

Robinson, for example, approached the Oral Health Foundation, funded by Delta Dental of Massachusetts, and helped secure a $200,000 grant for the new clinic. Meanwhile, Rubenzahl, who arrived at STCC just a few months before the search for a new clinic site commenced, helped in the effort to successfully lobby the state Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) for funding to renovate in Building 20. Meanwhile, Partners for a Healthier Community contributed $50,000 in seed money to get things started, said Foss, who recalled some of the early meetings with Oral Health Foundation officials.

“They wanted to interview all of us, all the players, to see how serious we were and to see if we actually had a plan of action,” he said. “Of course we had a plan of action, and we shared it with them. They were very excited about the possibility of funding us, at least to some point. They went back to their board and sold the project.”

Teething Troubles

That plan of action, as Foss called it, was to create a clinic with five chairs that would provide full dentistry to uninsured and underinsured individuals and families, and serve as a clinical site for STCC students. The clinic would make dental care more accessible to people in Greater Springfield — there are a few clinics already in existence, but continuity of care has always been a challenge — and thus create progress with one of the region’s most pressing, and vexing, health care concerns.

As good as that picture looked, there were a number of hurdles to clear before anyone could think of cutting a ceremonial ribbon.

“There was the time when we discovered from the architect that the cost was going to be several hundred thousand dollars more than what we had in the bank,” Foss recalled. “Then I think we had a little hope of money, and then we didn’t, and then we did again, and then we didn’t again. But then the state came through.

“We had even decided at one point that we were going to have to a do a phased project until we could raise additional funding,” he continued, adding that this project was defined by fits and starts that made the process frustrating but the end result more enjoyable.

“Every time we talked to the architects, the price went up — they’d bring up something else that I couldn’t see how we could pay for,” said Foss, noting that there were other challenges, including changes in leadership at both WMH (the president’s office) and STCC (director of facilities) to contend with.

“All this was sometimes frustrating to me personally, because I had already made the commitment — that it was going to happen,” he continued. “Part of my job was to get a hold of anyone’s ear that I could and explain to them just how necessary this clinic was.”

In the end, Foss, Robinson, Molleur, Tallman, and others succeeded in getting their points across.

Something to Chew On

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno had probably the best line about Foss having to abandon his space for the new clinic. He said that people usually didn’t leave an office until the voters decided it was time — or words to that effect.

Foss laughed at all the jokes, and eventually went to the podium to accept a plaque — one that will hang in his now-former office — that acknowledges all the hard work and perseverance that it took to get the clinic open.

The greater reward for all those involved will be the work going on in the chairs behind the plaque. It will hopefully help transform those pictures Foss used to gain additional inspiration for this project into distant memories.

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