Special Olympics athletes brothers Shawn and Tom Hendricks, 36 and 34, appear both excited and nervous as they entered the seventh annual Mission of Mercy, an annual charity event where dentist professionals and volunteers donate their time, providing free dental care to the uninsured, at the Fairgrounds and Expo Center in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin on June 12.
Earlier this year a dental screening through the Healthy Athletes Special Smiles program found dire problems. Shawn, Tom and other Special Olympics athletes “receive dental health screenings, oral hygiene education and prevention services at the Special Olympics Special Smiles” program, said Melissa Schoenbrodt, Special Olympics Wisconsin Director of Athlete Wellness Initiatives.
“However, obtaining follow-up dental treatment can be difficult for many individuals,” she said.
To cover the follow-up dental treatment Special Olympics Wisconsin teams up with the Wisconsin Dental Association’s Mission of Mercy event to provide more extensive dental care to Special Olympic athletes including cleanings, fillings, extractions, and limited treatment partials.
On the morning Shawn and Tom arrived the Expo Center was filled with rows of tables containing dental supplies and makeshift dentist chairs that took two days to set up. The chatter of hundreds of dentists, dental hygienists, volunteers, and patients was ever present along with the occasional background music played on iPods to help drone out the sound of dental instruments.
In the northeast corner of the expo was the Special Olympic athlete area for people with intellectual disabilities needing urgent dental care. Thirty-nine Special Olympic athletes & family members, including Shawn and Tom, were signed up for free dental appointments at the Mission of Mercy. Most were identified through a Special Smiles screening earlier in the year. Unlike the other patients at the event, the Special Olympics athletes didn’t have to camp out the night before or wait in long lines to receive care.
As Tom and Shawn sat down in chairs, their dentists and dental hygienists smiled while pondering the large amount of work needing to be done. As they analyzed Tom and Shawn’s oral hygiene the outlook seemed grim for their teeth.
“Shawn eventually will need 19 teeth to come out. Luckily he is not in any pain. A lot of the time we’ll try to do serial extractions where you’ll take the back teeth out first and then come back and take the front ones out. He is still using all of his teeth for chewing and functioning, so we have to be very careful taking them out. There is serious infection, so we will put him on antibiotics and get the infection under control and then we will proceed with restoring his teeth,” Dr. Robb A. Warren indicated.
Special Olympics Agency Manager, Pauline Ho, held Tom’s hand, to comfort him through his apparent pain. Tom’s dentist, Dr. Robert J. Brooks, said “Tom needs about a dozen fillings and about five extractions, we were able to do three fillings and one extraction (today) but unfortunately he can not tolerate any more today.”
“For the two of them, Shawn and Tom, this event is very important,” Ho said. “It’s very obvious they might not eat the best or receive dental care on a regular basis. I can’t even imagine the last time they’ve been to a dentist. The Healthy Athletes project has really promoted better health all around for them, as well as the other athletes in my agency.”
The consequences of leaving the teeth untreated are serious and possibly life threatening. “In the long run with Shawn and Tom, the upper teeth infection can spread up towards the eyes and cause vision problems and with the lower teeth the infection it can spread to the lymph nodes and cause major stomach infections,” Warren said.
“It goes beyond the pain in the mouth,” he said. “Any infection of the mouth affects the rest of the body. We’re talking about an increase of heart attack, stroke, lung infection, diabetes, etc. The bigger issue is catching these infections and problems before it results in those health issues or even possibly death.”
Shawn and Tom will receive follow up care on a 6-month to a year program that will eventually lead them to live with dentures in the future.
Even though Shawn endured a painful procedure throughout the day, he still had a positive outlook.
“I am very grateful to get my teeth fixed at Mission of Mercy. I am very happy to be a Special Olympic athlete where people care about me.”