Appalachia Mobile Dental Clinic
In the spring of 2008, Jon Letko made his return to Appalachia. The year before, Jon’s plans to speed-hike the Appalachian Trail had gotten sidetracked, leading him to visit several small towns along the trail’s route. What he saw shocked him. Jon witnessed crushing poverty – and with it, abysmal dental care. To make matters worse, the people there seemed to have accepted their fate. Jon, however, did not accept it. While reflecting on this jarring experience, he concluded that something must be done. Realizing he had both the time and the resources to help, Jon Letko began putting his plans motion.
Jon arrived in eastern Kentucky in late April. Armed with a suitcase full of dental equipment, he began by revisiting many of the areas he had passed through the year before. One of Letko’s first stops was in Beattyville, a small town with a long history of poverty. While time has been known to heal many wounds, it stood little chance of improving this place. Beattyville epitomizes the struggles felt by many areas of rural America – jobs in manufacturing and the fossil fuel industry had long gone, leaving in their wake communities rife with unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction.
Jon went to the local elementary school and introduced himself. He explained his intentions to offer free dental checkups for any child that wanted them. The administrators were initially wary, convinced Jon had an ulterior motive of some kind. Eventually, though, they dissented. Jon set up in the school nurse’s office and began seeing patients right away. Although he was now familiar with the lack of dental care in these areas, Jon couldn’t help but shake his head as child after child opened their mouth to reveal varying levels of decay. Unfortunately, without a full arsenal of equipment and a proper facility in which to operate, Jon’s options for care were restricted.
He began by asking questions about the children’s dental history and assessing their understanding of dental hygiene. He quickly noticed a pattern – many kids had never been to a dentist before. Although most owned toothbrushes, it was clear that good brushing habits were sorely lacking. He gave a short lesson to each child about the taking care of their teeth, stressing that flossing was just as important as using a toothbrush.
Jon would then move and perform a basic cleaning, assessing any decay that had already set in. Nearly every child he saw had at least one tooth that had to be pulled. Some had multiple. Jon Letko remembers one Beattyville child in particular – Daniel. To this day, Jon will cite this case when explaining why he does this volunteer work and why he considers it so important.
Daniel was one of the last children Jon saw before moving on to the next town, but he remembers the experience like it was yesterday. Daniel was 10 years of age, old enough that most of his permanent teeth had already come in. Yet, his mouth was full of missing teeth. Jon was incredulous. How had this happened? He’d never seen anything like it in all his years of dentistry – not is someone so young, anyway.
After being pressed for details, Daniel reluctantly told his story. First, Daniel revealed that he had never owned a toothbrush (nobody in his family did). His father had died of lung cancer several years before, and his mother was struggling with drug addiction, so Daniel and his brother lived with their uncle. Unfortunately, 10 years of poor dental hygiene eventually caught up with him. Daniel began getting severe toothaches several months before Jon’s arrival. As tears began welling up in his eyes, Daniel explained how the condition had gotten so bad that he was unable to sit through an entire day of school. One night, Daniel’s uncle – apparently tired of listening to his cries of pain (and unable to pay for a visit to the dentist) – took a pair of plyers out of the cupboard and proceeded to forcibly extract the “problem teeth” from Daniel’s mouth.
Jon Letko was heartbroken after listening to Daniel’s story. If only he’d been able to come a few months earlier, he likely could have saved some of the poor child’s teeth. Instead, the best he could do was write up a treatment plan and hope that Daniel would one day be able to afford a visit to the dentist. As a parting gift, he gave Daniel a brand new toothbrush and a small vial of toothpaste.
After leaving Beattyville, Jon Letko’s resolve was stronger than ever before. He worked his way north – from Kentucky, to West Virginia, and then on to Pennsylvania. Jon travelled from town to town and school to school, providing care to as many children as he could along the way. Some areas were in better shape than others, but the overall lack of dental care (and general healthcare, for that matter) was palpable everywhere he went.
The following year, Jon again returned to Appalachia. After doing some research online, he had been inspired to implement an ambitious new plan. Despite protestations from his wife, Jon bought a large mobile home from a retired couple in Tennessee. He then spent a considerable out-of-pocket sum to outfit the vehicle with all the equipment he’d been missing on his previous trip – proper dental chairs, solid lighting, and other necessary tools. Essentially, he created a working mobile dental clinic.
Finally, Jon Letko was able to operate up to his standards. That year, he toured all over the Appalachian region – returning to some places he’d been before (including Beattyville), but also visiting many new locations. In all, Jon estimates that he treated roughly 4,000 children during the spring of 2009.
Reflecting on his first significant foray into volunteer work, Jon Letko admits that he grew a lot from the experience. Jon realized how much he enjoyed giving back, especially to those who desperately needed it. For this reason, he had a hunch that any future adventures would be accompanied by some form of volunteer work.