By Valerie Yu, Special to the Independent
Golden rays set the place aglow. Bird melodies ride the breeze. It’s six in the morning, on a summery day. But peering in the mirror, your eyes zero in on an abysmal gap between yellowing front teeth, charred with murky stains and red angry canker sores raging in the gums.
To smile, let alone talk, is painful and a stinging blow to any sense of self-confidence.
Such contrasts were an everyday reality for south county native Regina Tomlinson, 26, and a current resident at Laguna Beach’s Friendship Shelter, where homeless adults aim to achieve self-sufficiency. Tomlinson knows the frustration of being unable to absorb or express joy through the simple act of smiling because her dental problems would not allow it.
But thanks to some big-hearted dentists, today, she can flash her pearly whites with pride.
Dentist Elli Abtahi and her office manager, Jodie Goode, remember the day Tomlinson walked into their beach-cottage office on Glenneyre Street, walking distance from the Friendship Shelter, her mouth swollen from eight tooth abscesses, her front teeth missing from a rough life on the streets. Eight extractions, one root canal and a partial denture later, Tomlinson emerged, more prepared to take life by the reins again.
The procedure was underwritten entirely by Abtahi’s office. “We’re just looking to help out and get these people off the street again. Everyone at some point in their life needs a helping hand,” said Abtahi, who graduated from Indiana University’s dental school in 2005 and opened a private practice in Laguna Beach in 2008. “All we’re doing is encouraging them to stand on their own feet. What better way to show this than helping them health-wise?”
For the past two years, raven-haired Abtahi has served as Friendship Shelter’s dental partner, establishing a no-cost service for its ever-changing 32 residents. She has helped at least 30 residents since the start, handling extractions, dentures, emergency situations, root canals, and X-rays. Frequency of visits varies. One month, the compassionate dentist had two or three visits a day.
Starting out was quite simple. “Jodie and I went in there, asked, ‘Is there anything we can do?’ At first, we just opened a little window, but now, the door has blown open,” she said.
At the shelter, retired periodontist Dr. Gene Rathbun assesses residents first. He refers severe or emergency needs—pain, infections, missing teeth—to Abtahi. After squeezing them in through her regular year-round appointments, she decides if they need specialist care from her equally generous associates drawn from throughout south-county.
She and a team of specialists—dentists Millard Roth and Dan Boehne, oral surgeons Nadar Salib and Mary Delsol, Okon Dental Lab, and implant company representatives Danielle Cohen and Jake Thomson—give it their all, from costly root canals to high-tech CT scans, free of charge.
Opened in 1988, Laguna’s nonprofit Friendship Shelter is a place of second chances. Over the last 25 years, it has helped 6,000 people get back on their feet. Local dentist Barbara Hawthorne occasionally provided services to shelter residents over the past seven years, but now residents of its self-sufficiency program, sister shelter in San Clemente, and Henderson House, as well as itinerant homeless people who bed down at the city’s Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon can get access to Abtahi’s no-cost dental care. Before this, there never really was an established system for indigents, said Self-Sufficiency Program Manager Analisa Andrus. For medical needs, Friendship Shelter residents are seen at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic in downtown and the government-funded county Medical Services Initiative Program for the poor.
Abtahi attributes the shortfall of general dental care to costly insurance and fear. Dental offices still inspire trepidation in some patients, which explains why her office is purposely designed like a home, complete with different welcome signs and a garden. Most people underestimate the impact of oral health on physical well-being and self-esteem, she said.
“You can’t go out and be engaged in the world without your teeth; that’s the world we live in,” said Friendship Shelter’s Director of Programs Mark Miller, whose responsibilities include operating the city’s homeless shelter. “If you have to spend your life afraid to smile, that eventually starts to eat away at your psyche.”
Rather than establish dental services at a homeless shelter, Miller strongly supports the alliance with Abtahi. “When you look at the idea of helping people integrate back into the community, the idea of them going to a dentist in the community and sitting in a waiting room with other members of the community…lets them feel like they belong somewhere and that people are pulling for them,” he said.
Abtahi affirmed, “We don’t accommodate them any differently than our regular patients. They come in just like everybody else.”
Going forward, Miller envisions a broader alliance involving dental and medical professionals to avert crises situations and move towards prevention. “We don’t need to wait until people are in pain to treat them,” he said. The shelter does actively seek out local practitioners such as Hawthorne to provide dental care. Before Abtahi’s office came into the picture, the shelter had been on the look-out to borrow office space for Rathbun, said Goode.
“One helping hand is like a drop in the ocean, but it’s better than no drop,” said Abtahi. Goode chimed in, “We hope this becomes infectious.”
Tomlinson is proof of the program’s impact. With a new swag in her voice rounded by deeper confidence from within, she beamed, “When I go to interviews, I don’t have to worry about my teeth problems. I’m more excited. I’m more smiling.”